Tourist Tide Heads Homeward

Itar-TassKazan has become a popular city among young Muscovite budget travelers.
Ever more Russian tourists are rediscovering the charms of their own country's attractions and choosing to vacation closer to home.

With prices falling and service improving in the country's Black Sea resorts, the destination is fast chipping away at Turkey and Egypt's hold on the Russian vacationer.

Turkey and other traditionally popular destinations "are no longer [only] budget travel destinations. They are increasingly becoming high-end luxury destinations for Moscow [travelers]," said Yelena Pechalova, a spokeswoman for travel sector research firm TMI Consultancy.

Travel agencies said last year's assessment of Turkey's tourist figures made news across the industry because of the 20 percent drop in Russian travelers visiting the country over the last two years.

This has been confirmed by a recent survey showing that Russians increasingly prefer domestic vacation packages. The same research also revealed a regional difference between budget and luxury-seeking travelers.

In 2006, Russia was chosen as the second most popular vacation spot for residents of Rostov-on-Don; third for travelers from Yekaterinburg; and fourth in Kazan and Samara, according to travel market research firm Banko, which polled over 150 tour operators in various regions.

Pechalova said the popularity of domestic destinations in Rostov-on-Don was due to the city's proximity to the resorts of Sochi, Adygeya and the Prielbrusie National Park in the North Caucasus.

"In Kazan, for example, domestic travel inside Russia is also in high demand, and many local resorts are popular," Pechalova said.

Just an overnight train ride from Moscow, Kazan has also become an attractive weekend destination for young, budget travelers from Moscow.

Caution remains advisable, however, as Russians' top-ranked destinations still remain Turkey and Egypt, which are among the least expensive tourist destinations, according to the Russian Association of Travel Agencies.

"Until now, the most important criterion for Russians deciding on vacations has been the price," said Irina Turinina, spokeswoman for the Union of Tour Industries. "In terms of price, Turkey and Egypt are the cheapest -- therefore there they're in demand."

But while the international tourism market has suffered due to fears of terrorism and outbreaks of avian flu, the regions are investing heavily in development and in promotional campaigns to attract the attention of tour operators and tourists.

Last June, posters and televised advertising began appearing in Moscow, Sochi and Krasnodar urging viewers to vacation at domestic resorts with the slogan: "It's Time to Go South!"

For the initial promotional phase, the tourism development department of the Krasnodar regional government allocated 20 million rubles ($770,000) for advertising, launching the Kurortkuban.com web site and organizing press tours for journalists and tour operators, said Ivana Senkova, a spokeswoman for the department.

The media campaign is aimed at attracting tourists used to traveling to Turkey or Cyprus to the domestic market, Senkova said.

Krasnodar is also the main destination for investment in the leisure sector and regional officials are keen to build on this interest. Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov said recently that the region was aiming to increase the annual number of visiting tourists to 20 million over the next two years.

Several major developers have shown an interest in the region, including the UMACO Group, which owns the Katerina range of hotels; Russian Hotels, founded in 2004, which built the Rodina Hotel in Sochi; and the Heliopark group.

But for Krasnodar to compete with Turkish resorts, infrastructure must develop alongside hotel construction, promoted by the state to ensure that resorts can function year-round.

Leading a delegation to the region in February, Mayor Yury Luzhkov signed a protocol of intention that Moscow would invest about $2 billion into the construction of a recreation and tourism area to develop the coast.

"It will contribute to the influx of Moscow citizens spending their summer vacations in the Crimea," Luzkhov said, according to a report by the Moscow city government.

Most importantly for the domestic tourist industry, the investment in development and improved service has come without an accompanying increase in prices, industry watchers said.

"This past season, prices for travel to Krasnodar either remained at the same level as previous years or dropped 5 to 10 percent," Turinina said.

"Furthermore, lower prices are related to the overall [weak] situation of the international tourist market. Domestic tourism is becoming more and more attractive not only for tourists, but also for tour operators."