Uncertainty for Russian tourists in Turkey hotspot as war rages

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With its shimmering azure waters, secluded coves and golden sands, Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is a destination beloved by Russian tourists, nearly five million of whom visited last year.

But many visitors currently on holiday in the area now fear they will be unable to return home because of extensive Western sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

Restrictions on card payments and flight operations have also raised fears of a slump in Russian tourism to Turkey, a key source of revenues for Ankara.

Holidaymaker Margarita Sabatnikaya, 31, says her vacation plans have been thrown into doubt and that she fears being stranded.

“We have come here for a holiday with our children. It’s unclear when we’ll return to Russia, by which plane,” she said.

Sabatnikaya said that she wanted to continue her holiday but her bank cards had stopped working.

“It’s unclear how to stay here and how to survive,” she said.

While flag carrier Turkish Airlines says flights to and from Russia will “continue for the moment,” no frills carrier Pegasus has suspended its services leaving its customers desperate to rebook elsewhere.

Dozens of Western countries have banned Russian planes from their airspace while some carriers operating flights to Russia have had their insurance policies cancelled.

Some Turkish holiday operators have cited the impact of Western sanctions when cancelling the plans of their Russian clients.

US card giants MasterCard and Visa have suspended their Russian operations, although Russian cardholders in Turkey are able access to their funds through Russia’s homegrown payments system Mir.

“We heard the company that brought us here stopped flights but I am not sure,” said Russian tourist Anton Gavrilov, 34.

“Of course, I had a little bit of cash but if I’d like to pay with my card I don’t know if it will be possible for me,” he added having swapped the icy Moscow winter for Turkey’s sun-kissed Mediterranean coast.

‘Very serious’

The damage wrought on Turkey’s crucial travel industry will depend on how long sanctions on Russia are enforced for, industry experts say.

But there is a chance that Russians fleeing their homeland could offset some of the losses, they say.

“We foresee that the impact of this crisis on Antalya tourism will be very serious,” Anna Yiğit, deputy general manager of an Antalya resort hotel, told AFP.

“We are prepared for it, we have antibodies!”

Around 4.5 million Russian and two million Ukrainian tourists descended on Turkey last year.

The government was hoping for a post-Covid rebound this year, with a target of almost $35 billion (38 billion euros) in total tourism revenues, back at pre-pandemic levels.

“Russians were among number one arrivals for Turkey before the pandemic, maybe this year Turkey was on course for 10-15 million Russian tourists,” said Washington Institute fellow Soner Çağaptay.

All this “will be lost if the sanctions are so severe that the Russian middle class won’t be able to afford travel to Turkey,” he said.

Turkey has weathered a drought of Russian tourists before when, in the first half of 2016, Ankara shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.

In this conflict Turkey has sought to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin despite Kyiv using Turkish drones in the battlefield.

‘Don’t know what to do’

Holidaymaker Gavrilov said he fears this holiday will be his last as sanctions have caused the ruble to reach all-time lows against the dollar.

“It will be really hard to afford a trip for family,” he said.

Hoteliers in Turkey’s resorts have been left guessing how many Russian guests will pull out of their bookings, although there has not yet been a wave of cancellations.

Russian tourists who paid a deposit for holiday packages may not now be able to afford to pay the difference after the ruble slumped in value.

Western restrictions on flights to and from Russia have pushed up air fares for the countries that continue to have services to Russia, like Turkey.

Typical ticket prices have jumped from 180 euros to 400 euros.

One Russian family told AFP they paid 900 euros for a one-way ticket from Russia to Antalya on a “low-cost” airline.

Anastasia Zanolotnaya, 27, a diving instructor living in Antalya for four years, said many Russians who came to Turkey for holidays were now stranded.

“I have two Russian friends who stay with me right now. They cannot get back because (plane tickets) are very expensive,” she told AFP.

Ukrainian tourists are also affected.

“We came for holiday in early February, now (me and my family) cannot go back,” said Olga, who declined to give her surname.

“We should have returned just two days after the war. No flight now. We have a small amount of money now. We don’t know what to do.”

AFP

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