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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Tourists Are Taming Turkey and Spain

MTRussian tourists on a package tour watching a display at an Antalya, Turkey, leather showroom, which has a Russian-speaking staff.
After spending decades hemmed in by the Iron Curtain, Russians are spending their newfound wealth on travel abroad and flocking to foreign beaches as never before.

In Soviet times the average Russian in search of some sun usually went to the Black Sea resort of Sochi or the tiny Crimean Peninsula, now part of Ukraine.

The only other options were the Baltic seaside resorts of Jurmala and Palanga.

Local sanatoriums and hotels never had enough room to accommodate the millions of families eager to escape the cold and bask in the sun.

That changed when Russians were allowed to travel freely after the fall of communism and many people began earning a decent living.

Data from the Economic Development and Trade Ministry showed that Russians made 20.3 million trips abroad last year, up from 18 million in 2001.

The contrast could hardly be greater with Soviet times when families were often forced to share rented rooms at vacation resorts with others. Beaches were crammed with people and basic facilities were in short supply.

For many, the memories were ghastly.

"My most vivid impression of a seaside beach as a child was a toilet that stank. You noticed the stink wherever you were on the beach," said Sergei, a 45-year-old driver.

Trips abroad, even to countries in the Soviet bloc, were a rare treat. Today the top destination is Turkey, followed by Spain, Cyprus, Greece and Russia.

"For me, it was a perfect combination of a possibility to sunbathe, swim, eat good seafood and vegetables and at the same time do sightseeing," said 40-year-old Anya, who recently returned from a vacation in Crete.

The Russian Association of Travel Agencies estimates on its web site that the tourism business in the Commonwealth of Independent States could top $46.6 billion this year and reach $110.6 billion by 2013.

Russia accounts for the lion's share of turnover, it said.

"People are already accustomed to travelling abroad. An average middle class Muscovite is guaranteed to go abroad with his family once a year," said Nelya Ionkina, director of the Ital Travel agency.

"People with an income slightly higher than average go abroad twice a year, while 5 percent to 10 percent of the population goes abroad once every three months, for vacations with the children and once in winter to celebrate the New Year."

Paul Clark, chairman of the Moscow Association of Travel Agencies, said a typical Russian tourist earns $400 to $600 per month and can save about $1,800 for a trip to Turkey for a family of three with a decent hotel.

Countries like Spain and Turkey are responding to the Russian tourist invasion by offering restaurant menus in Russian and taking on staff who speak the language.

Many Russians have in turn quickly developed a taste for a Western lifestyle, fueling demand back home for sophisticated restaurants, cafes and shopping malls.

Although Russians are enjoying better vacations than ever before, competition among tour firms has brought headaches for some travelers.

Unscrupulous operators have sprung up, collecting money from clients before vanishing without trace. Other firms have folded, leaving hapless tourists stranded abroad. As competition heats up, thousands of Russian tour firms have seen their profits squeezed.

Clark said large firms are making a $5 to $6 profit on each package tour trip to Turkey. "Most firms live from client to client," he said.

To safeguard unsuspecting tourists against fly-by-night travel agencies, the State Duma is preparing to debate a bill calling for the creation of a contingency fund to help travelers stranded abroad. Every travel firm would have to pay about $100,000 into the fund.

Clark said MATA opposed the bill in its current form because a flat rate contribution would drive small firms, which make up the bulk of the industry, out of business or force them to merge with bigger ones. "The contribution must be proportional to each travel agency's risks," he said.

He said the bill, if approved, would leave a handful of big travel firms which would not be able to handle an increased volume of tourists while offering good service.

"It will be like a cheap wholesale market," he said.

Large companies account for just 3 percent to 5 percent of Russia's more than 10,000 travel firms.

But Ital Travel's Ionkina said the proposed guarantee payment was not high for a proper tourist operator.

"It does not mean strangling agents but putting them under normal working conditions," she said.