Muscovites Canceling New Year Travel Plans

When Nastya Tarasova's mother broke the news that they would not be going on their traditional New Year's holiday in Egypt this year, the 9-year-old girl learned a new word.

"I'm sorry, my girl, but it's a crisis," Anna Tarasova said.

The holiday plans were scuttled in November, when Anna, a single mother, was laid off from her project manager job as part of a general downsizing at a Moscow publishing company.

Now, the Tarasovas are among the estimated thousands who have had to shelve their travel plans this winter after losing jobs or being sent on unpaid leave.

Demand for New Year's vacation packages had dropped by about 20 percent in Moscow and 50 percent in other regions as of early December, said Russian Travel Industry Union spokeswoman Irina Tyurina.

The country's tourism industry is still relatively young and small, which could make it particularly vulnerable to the financial turmoil, said Tatyana Sergeyeva, deputy director of tour operator Capital Tour.

Only about 6 percent of Russians have ever traveled abroad, according to 2007 figures from the State Statistics Service. The figure for Germany, by comparison, is more than 60 percent.

For Russians with higher incomes, going abroad at the end of year has become a holiday standard, and many appear to be sticking to their plans this year. Others, however, concerned about being too far away from their businesses in troubled times, may stay near the capital this year, and some travel specialists say that this could benefit winter tourism in the Moscow region.

And while demand for ski vacations in general is down 20 percent from last year, said Maxim Pristavko, deputy director of tour operator JET Travel, demand for economy packages is up.

"I use to go skiing in Bormio, Italy, but this year I'm going to Bansko, Bulgaria," said Alexei Peplov, 33, a sales manager for a climate control company. "It's good there too, and it's cheaper."

Although Peplov still has a job, he said the current economic uncertainty meant that anything could happen, and that it made no sense to "throw money away."

"Uncertainty is the main reason people are thinking twice before spending their money on traveling at present, or they just don't want to go for a vacation at all, caring more about saving their job than taking a rest," said Tyurina of the Russian Travel Industry Union.

Some people are pushing back their vacations, going for less busy, cheaper times. Instead of early January, for example, they might hit the ski resorts in February.

"I have no financial problems, but it's just stupid to pay almost two times more for the same package at New Year's," said Irina Mazurova, a manager at information technology service provider IT Co.

Train trips to Nordic countries are particularly popular this year, said Maria Malysheva, spokeswoman for domestic operator PAC Group, citing several factors behind the trend.

"Some people are just sick of the flight delays that have occurred in recent months, some are afraid to fly, and some think it's a convenient way to travel with kids," Malysheva said.

At the end of December, 86 charter trains will go to Finland from Moscow and St. Petersburg, compared to 54 last year, Interfax reported.

Egypt remains the most popular winter destination, and Maria Makarkova, spokeswoman for TEZ Tour, said demand for trips there has not fallen.

Sergeyeva of Capital Tour, however, said sales of Egypt packages had dropped by about 20 percent compared to last year.

A fall in the number of Russians looking to visit Egypt would only be welcomed by some players, however, as contracts with Russian tour operators had been squeezing operators from other countries out, said Ahmed Aziz, managing director of GTC Travel, an Egypt tour operator for Eastern Europe. In a telephone interview from Ljubljana, Slovenia, he said his business would only benefit if less Russians went to Egypt.

"I pray that Russians go less," he said. "I hope they will cancel 50 percent of their flights to Egypt."

His prayers may have been answered.

"From what I know, very close to 50 percent of charters to Egypt from Russia's regions have canceled," said Sergeyeva of Capital Tour.