Mideast Tourism Industry Targets Hardy Russians
Cairo, Egypt (The Media Line) – It was the height of the Egyptian revolution. Crowds were massing at Tahrir Square and security forces were shooting back. Across Egypt, the government was losing its grip on public order and no one could say for certainty that the country wouldn’t slip into civil war.
It was also the height of Egypt’s tourist season, and the visitors couldn’t pack their bags quickly enough. But not the Russians, who are regarded as among the most fearless of the world’s travelers. “Look on the TV screens at what is happening in Egypt. Everyone is leaving, but our tourists are sitting in airports waiting to fly there. Even though the looters have already taken over the hotels. No! They are still flying there!” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told a news conference.
In fact, Russians fled, too, with some 40,000 of them getting evacuated at the height of the tumult in February 2011. Arrivals from Russia tumbled by more than a third for the year versus 2010. But the Russian Foreign Ministry quickly dropped its travel ban on Egypt and the first batch of visitors was sunning on the beaches of Hurghada and Sharm A-Sheikh by early April. By the end of 2011, some 1.8 million Russians had visited the country, outnumbering the British and Germans.
Egypt’s experience has not been lost on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) travel industry: As the region taps new sources for visitors and struggles with a reputation as a dangerous destination increasingly hostile to the booze and bikinis that are the sin qua non of world travel, Russians have emerged as the tourists of choice.
Egypt is still suffering bouts of violence – some 20 people were killed in a Cairo protest Wednesday and its Sinai Peninsula has been plagued by killings and kidnappings, but tourism officials are convinced Russian visitors will look the other way. Egypt is cutting airport fees, marketing itself through a private sector fund and launching new segments, such as eco-tourism to lure Russians as well as Indians, Chinese and Japanese.
“The Russians are resilient. They are one of the markets where we plan to increase our investment this year,” Amr Al-Ezaby, chairman of Egypt’s Tourism Promotion Agency, told the Financial Times in January.
Morocco, which has avoided most of the Arab Spring upheavals, is also focusing on Russia, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics as flagship carrier Royal Air Maroc adds more flights linking the country to Russia and Poland.
Over in the Gulf, Flydubai, the emirate’s budget carrier, has opened up routes to Russia and neighboring Ukraine, including twice weekly flights to the Russian cities of Kazan, Ufa, Samara and Yekaterinburg. As a result, Dubai International Airport saw passenger traffic with Russia soar by almost 50% in the first quarter to 359,066, compared with 245,050 during the same period in 2011.
To lure Russians to its beaches, as well as its holy sites, Israel recruited Russian travel agents to complete in a “Miss Russian Tourism” pageant this week to promote its Eilat resort.
John Fletcher, who is director of the International Center for Tourism & Hospitality Research at Britain’s Bournemouth University, said the reputation of Russians as Teflon-coated tourists is exaggerated. Research shows that some nationalities are more risk adverse travelers than other – the Germans compared to the British – but the differences are not that great, he said.
“There is no evidence to suggest that that the Russian tourists are any more or less concerned about the prospect of being caught up in terrorist acts or civil unrest than the rest of Europe,” Fletcher told The Media Line in an e-mail.
One difference is that they may feel less like to be a target for terrorism, compared to American or British travelers, simply because their country is seen as less deeply enmeshed in the Middle East and its politics. In fact, Fletcher said, Russians are attracted to the MENA region for more prosaic reasons.
“It is easier for the Russian people to secure visas for travel to the Middle East; it is relatively cheaper than going anywhere in the Eurozone or the UK,” he said. “Many of the Russian travelers are attracted to areas such as Dubai for shopping.”
Last year, Turkey was the single most popular destination among the 14.5 million trips made abroad by Russians, with Egypt third and large shares going to the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
In any case, it’s not just the thick Russian skin that makes its tourists such a sought-after market. More and more Russians are travelling abroad as their country grows wealthier. But for now the Russians that do travel tend to be above-average income, meaning they lavish more money on hotels, restaurants, attractions and trinkets than backpackers or package-tour denizens.
According to the World Tourism Organization, spending by Russians traveling abroad increased 21% in the five years to 2011 to reach $31 billion, overtaking Japan, Canada and Italy. Russia is currently placed as sixth in the world as a source for tourists, up from ninth in 2007, it said.
But Eventica, a firm specializing in tourism promotion in Russia, cites statistics showing only 15% of Russia’s 142 million have ever travelled abroad at all. Those that do, spend an average of $1,000 a person on their holiday, it said. Three quarters of them pay in cash.
Economic woes in Europe, traditionally the source of tourists for MENA, have cast a shadow over that market, and are enhancing Russia’s attractiveness. Just ask Turkish tourism officials, who expect Russia to surpass Germany as its biggest market for incoming tourism.
“We have not been affected by the European economic crisis. We see an increase in tourism revenues from Lebanon, Russia and Kazakhstan, countries unaffected by the crisis,” Turgut Gur, the president of Turkey’s Tourism Investors Foundation, told the Anatolia news agency recently.
The rising tide of Islam in the MENA region, where Islamist parties have risen to power in top destinations like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, could reverse the trend, some tourism experts warn.
But Sergei Teodorovich, an official at Russian Federal Agency for Tourism, told Russia’s RT television network in December that he is not concerned. “Tourism is a centerpiece of the Egyptian economy. That’s why, I’m sure, they won’t change anything,” he said.