Rouble's loss is Russian domestic tourism's gain

A tourist posing with a samovar in a 19th-century home in the tourist village of Vyatskoye. The state tourism agency says the rising number of Russians vacationing in Russia is evidence of their love for the motherland.
A tourist posing with a samovar in a 19th-century home in the tourist village of Vyatskoye. The state tourism agency says the rising number of Russians vacationing in Russia is evidence of their love for the motherland.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

VYATSKOYE (Russia) • The tourists streamed out of the tall white bus onto an asphalt parking lot in the middle of this spruced-up village. Wearing sun hats and wielding cameras, they peered into the gardens of brightly painted houses and listened to a tour guide talk about enterprising peasants.

They were Russians vacationing in Russia, a sight that has become ever more common since a fall in the rouble that started late last year put foreign vacations out of reach of many in the middle class.

And while that may be causing a tinge of regret among Russian vacationers as the season wanes, on this bus, in this town, the tourists were taking it in stride.

"Paris is okay, but there is no place better than home," said Ms Olga Korovina, 53, a businesswoman from nearby Yaroslavl with a camera around her neck who was taking photographs of her friends in front of a restored 19th-century cabin. She scrapped plans to drive through Europe this summer after the rouble's fall made it too expensive.

One of the most profound changes in the lives of Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union has been the ability to travel abroad.

The currency's loss has been the domestic tour industry's gain. Early estimates indicate sales of domestic tours are up nearly 20 per cent this year, while foreign tours are down sharply. Sales to Thailand are down by about half, and those to Greece are down by a third.

The shift opened up a closed society, and as soon as they could afford it, Russians went. Foreign air travel rose exponentially, and members of the expanding middle class filled beaches in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Thailand on package tours that became a symbol of newfound affluence.

But last year, a tectonic shift occurred. After Russia's annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent divorce from the West, officials in Russian security services were encouraged not to travel abroad.

By summer, rank-and-file workers of state-owned companies began vacationing in Russia in order to avoid annoying their bosses, whom politics - and in some cases economic sanctions - prevented from travelling abroad, said Ms Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia.

By the end of the year, the rouble had slid to a historic low against the US dollar, and the suggestion that the security service workers not travel abroad had turned into a ban that Ms Lomidze estimated affected about four million people, including family members.

The currency's loss has been the domestic tour industry's gain. Early estimates indicate that sales of domestic tours are up nearly 20 per cent this year, Ms Lomidze said, while foreign tours are down sharply. Sales to Thailand are down by about half, and those to Greece have decreased by a third.

For Russians, vacationing in Russia has another benefit: It is good for their country. Russia is awash in patriotism, stirred up by the government of President Vladimir Putin, and vacations are not immune from this fervour.

The state tourism agency has trumpeted the rising numbers as evidence of Russians' love for the motherland. In July, the Kremlin weighed delaying the start of the school year so people could vacation longer.

And this month, Mr Putin held a government meeting on domestic tourism in Yalta, a town in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed last year. In Sochi, a resort on the Black Sea that has experienced the largest surge of visitors, the Russian anthem is played through loudspeakers on the beach every day. Videos show people in bathing suits getting up on their feet out of respect.

Vyatskoye - a village of restored houses from the 19th century about 266km north of Moscow - takes a subtler approach.

The museum's benefactors, an affluent couple from Yaroslavl, restored a house for themselves in Vyatskoye some years back and decided to keep going.

There are now 10 museums, including one on the theme of Russian entrepreneurialism featuring elaborate window frames, musical instruments and old bricks.

Ms Korovina, the businesswoman, said learning about the past satisfied a craving she and her friends were experiencing as Russians.

"Now Russians have really started to rise from their knees," she said. "You feel really proud, like you can spread your wings and your heart beats stronger."

THE NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'Rouble's loss is Russian domestic tourism's gain'. Print Edition | Subscribe