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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

More Tourists Head for the Beach This Year

Travel agents didn't send as many Russians to Athens for the Olympic Games as they had hoped, but the number of tourists that they booked for other sunny destinations has more than made up for it.

The crowds and steep cost of the Olympics put off many tourists, said Natalya Viktorova, manager at Panteon-Palas, which specializes in Greek tours. The cheapest hotel rooms in Athens cost 500 euros ($615) per day -- more than double the usual rate -- and they were even higher when bookings for the Olympics opened last winter.

Still, enough Russian fans have booked rooms to leave no vacancies this week, the final half of the two-week Games, Viktorova said.

"All the hotels are full," she said. "There are no more tickets on sale for the finals that our athletes will take part in."

Greece aside, more tourists headed to warmer climes to work on their tans than last year, according to government data and travel agencies.

Russian airlines flew 19,500 charter flights abroad from the start of the summer season, in May, through July, shuttling at least 2 million tourists, according to the latest figures from the Federal Air Transportation Agency, released in mid-August. That is up 13 percent from 17,200 flights over the same period last year.

Tour operators said sales of trips to destinations such as Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia rose by at least 20 percent compared to last year.

Intair's sales of trips to Tunisia tripled and to Egypt doubled, said the agency's first vice president, Galina Gorshkova. Sales of trips to Turkey and Bulgaria grew by 50 percent, she said.

TEZ Tour saw more modest growth, with only 20 percent to 30 percent more Russians flying to Turkey and Egypt, spokeswoman Sofia Soboleva said.

"Turkey is always growing," Soboleva said.

Egypt, she added, is a close runner-up, with its popularity coming from its dollar-denominated economy that offers lower prices than hot spots in neighboring countries that have shifted to the euro.

Growth has been slower than in previous years because "maybe people have started putting money into longer-term things such as real estate," she said.

Also, prices have edged up 15 percent to 20 percent to many destinations due to factors such as a strong euro and high oil prices, which make plane tickets more expensive, she said.

Some popular destinations, such as Spain, have even seen a decline in demand because of the higher prices. Air tickets to Barcelona have not sold out as in previous summers, said Armen Kerekhenyan, general director of the Perspektiva travel agency. "It wasn't like this before," he said, noting that the decline began about three years ago when the European Union introduced the euro.

A tour to Spain costs $1,500 -- just a little less than a $1,800 tour to Cuba -- but Cuba "is a totally different and new world," Kerekhenyan said.

"I have clients who used to vacation in Spain but went to Cuba this year," he said.

He said sales of Cuba tours increased this year, with most tourists flying there in the winter and spring.

Intair said many tour operators have had to slash prices for once-popular destinations to fill charter flights. Most of the charter planes were booked in advance in anticipation of more tourists, but demand fell in June and July.

The type of tourist has also changed. According to Soboleva, three- and four-star hotels are accounting for most of the growth, while fewer people are staying in top-class hotels. She attributed the change to "a new layer of tourists who are only starting to travel," mostly in the middle class.

Also, more people are relaxing on the sun-baked beaches of southern Russia and Ukraine this year.

Some 945,000 passengers traveled from Moscow to Russian beaches on the Black Sea and Crimea in June and July, according to the Moscow Railroad. That is an increase of 37 percent over the same time last year.

Moscow is the country's largest transit hub, and the passengers were both Muscovites and residents of other regions.

The railroad said passenger numbers were about average in May.

The most popular beach destinations are the Crimean resort towns of Feodosia, Sevastopol and Yevpatoria as well as Russia's Black Sea coastal towns of Novorossiisk, Anapa and Sochi.

Tour operators and the Moscow Railroad said business has continued to grow steadily this month. August figures will be available in mid-September.