Countries brace for tourism blow from Russia-Ukraine war

BELEK, Turkey (AP) — After losing two years to the COVID-19 pandemic, merchants in the heart of the Turkish Riviera were hoping for a strong tourist season this year to help keep their businesses afloat.. But Russia’s war in Ukraine is rapidly dampening their spirits.

“We are trying to earn our living through tourism, but it seems that the war has also killed this (tourism) season,” Devrim Akcay said outside his clothing store in the tourist town of Belek in Antalya province. , on the Mediterranean coast. .

Nowhere is the threat of a single domino effect of war. The loss of tourism was felt more strongly than in Antalya, a region dotted with sparkling beaches and archaeological sites where visitors from Russia and Ukraine, along with Germany, make up the main contributors to tourism revenue.

Countries from Turkey to Thailand, Egypt and Cuba are bracing for the loss of Russian and Ukrainian visitors just as their travel sectors sought to recover from the pandemic. With many economies dependent on tourism also struggling with rising inflation and other illshotel workers, guides and others who cater to visitors from the two warring nations expect more pain.

The turquoise waters and white sand beaches of the Cuban resort of Varadero, which until recently received a significant number of tourists -mainly Russians-, are now almost empty.

Russians accounted for nearly a third of Cuba’s visitors last year, more than 146,000, and were seen by some as giving some oxygen to an industry sickened by the pandemic and tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump. .

“Now we also have to manage without Russian tourism,” said José Luis Perelló Cabrera, a Cuban economist and tourism expert.

The Association of Russian Tour Operators estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 Russian tourists were on the island when the war broke out in Ukraine. Several flights left Varadero in early March to bring them home.

“Losing that market is a serious blow for Cuba,” said Natasha Strelkova, a Russian-Cuban tour operator and guide on the island.

Across the Atlantic, Russians and Ukrainians may account for up to 35% of Egypt’s tourists annually, said Hisham el-Demiry, former head of the government-run Tourism Development Authority.

He worries that the economic crisis caused by the war could mean fewer guests overall.

“It is a great impact, a domino effect. … The war has changed people’s priorities, and tourism, which is a very sensitive industry, will be the first casualty,” she said.

Rania Ali, reception manager at a four-star hotel in Hurghada, said that “before the war they were more than 75% occupied, now we are only 35% occupied.”

Russians were among Thailand’s top 10 visitor groups until late last year, when the country began reopening to international tourists. Russia restarted charter flights relatively early and in winter, when Thailand’s mild temperatures make it a highly desirable destination, helping its people become the main visitors among the modest numbers Thailand has begun receiving.

The season from November to March, when Russians usually visit, is coming to an end and the value of the ruble is falling it makes traveling to Thailand and elsewhere much more expensive now, said Chattan Kunjira Na Ayudhya, Deputy Governor for International Marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

“This will probably lead Russian tourists to switch to destinations that offer them all-inclusive packages at better prices,” he said.

In Turkey, officials hoped that with the easing of pandemic restrictions, tourism could replicate or exceed 2019 figures, when some 52 million visitors, including some 7 million Russians and 1.6 million Ukrainians, generated revenue of $34 billion. The total number of visitors fell to 15 million in 2020, but recovered to around 29 million last year.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had drawn up a strategy to open up the economy and generating big growth this year could help him get re-elected next year, experts say. It is a difficult task for a country with a currency crisis. and inflation above 54%, making it difficult for consumers to buy even basic goods.

“For that to happen, Turkey needs its strong trade and tourism ties with Russia to go unhindered,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst at the Middle East Policy Institute in Washington.

The expectation before the war was that “perhaps 10, 15 million Russians would visit Turkey this summer and spend $10 billion, a stimulus for Turkey’s ailing economy,” Cagaptay said.

Now business groups say they are seeing an erosion in trade in both directions, including a drop in demand for Turkish farm products as Russian buyers struggle to make payments. That is despite the fact that Turkey did not join the sanctions against Moscow.

Agricultural grower and exporter Nevzat Akcan is concerned that he will not be able to ship the red peppers he grows in greenhouses in the Aksu district solely for the Russian and Ukrainian markets.

“May God protect us if we join the sanctions against Russia. This would be a disaster for Turkish agriculture. We would be broke and finished,” Akcan said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

NATO member Turkey, which has cultivated close ties with both Russia and Ukraine, is trying to balance those relations and has positioned itself as a neutral party trying to mediate. Turkey has criticized Russia’s military actions in Ukraine as “unacceptable” but also said it would not give up on either side.

The Antalya region is haunted by the memory of 2016, when Russia dealt a severe blow to Turkey’s economy by banning the import of some agricultural products and halting charter flights there after the Turkish military shot down a Russian warplane in 2015.

Agriculture has already begun to suffer the effects of the war, said Davut Cetin, director of the Antalya Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“The Ukrainian market has been closed. Now no fresh fruit or vegetables are leaving for Ukraine,” Cetin said.

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Associated Press journalists Mehmet Guzel in Belek, Turkey; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Juan Zamorano in Havana and Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed.

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