Vacations come to an abrupt end as tourists return to a different Russia
Playa Puerto Cruz, Venezuela – They drank rum and danced in a boombox destroying Russian electro pop music in the waiting room of a spoiled airport. He enjoyed the final hours of his tropical vacation while singing “It’s Not Enough”.
Passengers could be mistaken for spring break goers. In fact, they were Russians waiting to board the final flights to Moscow before sanctions cut their route home – their future and their hosts’ fears over Ukraine as President Vladimir V. Unlike Putin’s invasion.
Russian tourists have helped breathe new life into Venezuela’s idyllic island of Margarita, once a Caribbean tourist mecca that has been ravaged by economic crisis, international isolation and pandemics in recent years. More than 10,000 Russians have visited Margarita since September on direct charter flights from Moscow, under a deal approved by the respective governments of both countries, which was the island’s only international connection.
The deal employed hundreds of Margarita residents in 20 hotels, and forced the central government to repair the island’s dilapidated supplies of electricity, water and gasoline. Endemic crime was brought to its peak; Businesses began to reopen; The residents who had fled started returning.
The recent growth of Russian visitors represented a small fraction of the three million tourists it receives annually at its peak in the early 2010s. But the advent of organized international tours earlier in years gave locals hope that they had turned the tide of misfortune.
“We want to embrace any foreigners who come here,” said Jose Gregorio Rodriguez, head of the Chamber of Commerce in the Venezuelan archipelago state of Nueva Esparta, which includes Margarita. “When you’re at zero, any improvement is welcome.”
Russians were drawn to the margarita by cheap prices, exoticism, lack of visas or pandemic restrictions and the year-round sun, tourists interviewed on the island in February and early March. Tours start at $850 per person for 13 nights in an all-inclusive, three-star beachfront hotel, which includes return flights from Moscow, 15 hours each way.
“This is something new, something exciting,” said Lucia Alieva, a blogger from the city of Kazan. “We’re kind of the first explorers.”
Some Russian tourists said they booked tickets for a margarita a day or two before the trip without knowing anything about Venezuela, attracted to the destination by the unusually low price. Most of those interviewed described themselves as small business owners or provincial public workers, many of whom come from Chita, a Siberian town near Mongolia, far from state capitals. Some had never gone out of Russia; Most had never been to Latin America.
Many older tourists begin their holidays in an orthodox Russian way: with heavy drinking.
Last month, Algis, who works for a construction company in Sochi in southern Russia, was drunk while landing on a plane wearing several layers of winter clothing in 90-degree heat. He held a bag of duty-free alcohol in one hand, and a torn packet of assorted dollar bills in the other, saying that he intended to invest them in a possible marriage on the island.
Another tourist named Andrey, who rents heavy equipment in the mining town of Chelyabinsk, told of a dinner laden with copious bottles of cheap Chilean wine, during a heavy drinking session that took place in his hometown. Launched and taken to the terminal of Moscow airport and on the flight. As for Margarita, he was shocked by a voice announcing on the plane’s loudspeaker that he had been chosen to meet with the Venezuelan tourism minister upon landing as he was the 10,000th Russian tourist to visit the island.
Andrey said he struggled to stand up straight for the picture.
At the sprawling Margarita resort of Sansol Ecoland, Russians danced until the early hours at a beach disco, replacing reggaeton with Russian hits from bands such as Leningrad, a foul-smelling ska act that combined hard work and the exploitation of hard work. Romantic made – downtrodden of the class.
In visits to the colonial cities of Margarita during the day, many marveled at the ability of the Venezuelan people to maintain good spirits despite everyday economic hardships.
But then on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and the war quickly erupted in areas far from the battlefield.
As the fighting escalated, Western countries and companies closed their airspace to Russian flights and stopped leasing contracts and the supply of aviation parts. In response, Russia-focused tour operator Pegas Touristique asked customers to soak up the sun on the margaritas that they would have to evacuate.
Many began to wonder what difficulties would await them at home now.
Inflation is rising in Russia; There is a growing threat of shortage and hoarding; And the government is imposing currency controls and threatening foreign companies, echoing life during Venezuela’s eight-year economic depression from which the South American country is just emerging.
“Thankfully, they have the sea and the sun,” said Yulia, a Moscow ministry worker. “In a country like ours, escaping turmoil and poverty would be very difficult and tragic.”
Like other Russians interviewed on Margarita since the start of the war, Yulia asked not to use her last name. None of the Russian tourists the Times spoke to would comment on the invasion or on initial reports of civilian casualties in Ukraine. They often blamed poor internet connection for not keeping up with the news. The Russian government has also made mentioning war a criminal offense, which can carry up to 15 years in prison.
Yulia spent her last days on the beach at Margarita, reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”.
As the fight against Russia intensified and international sanctions intensified, the mood at the resorts became progressively gloomier. Russia’s purchasing power fell along with the ruble, and their bank cards stopped working.
Russo-Ukraine War: Major Events
The Russian guests of Sunsol quietly ate their last dinner on the island. The general noise of a lively conversation and the shuffling and clinking of wine glasses in the hotel’s large buffet hall was replaced by the sound of distant ripples.
The beach disco was empty. A group of Venezuelan performers danced on stage on their own, trying to please the abortive guests considering their impending problems.
The Russian currency has lost about 37 percent of its value since the start of the war, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are facing unemployment, as sanctions shut down companies at a record pace.
A Russian consortium of tour operators said international bookings fell 70 percent in the week following the outbreak of the war.
The mood of the resort staff was equally serious.
The war has dealt a major blow to Margarita, which is expected to attract 65,000 Russian visitors this year. Some business people remodeled their defunct hotels to accommodate the expected visitors and hired new staff, in the hope that Russian flights would open doors to other international tourists.
Wages were low – waiters earned at least $1 a day – but jobs provided steady food, at least in a country where hunger persists. Since the war broke out, many people have already lost jobs or cut their shifts.
The last flight from Margarita to Moscow left on March 8. Since then all major Russian airlines have stopped flying further west than neighboring Belarus.
Although Pegas continues to advertise Margarita Tours starting in April, those who own the tourism business on the island say the route’s future is uncertain.
During the last days of their vacation, some guests said they placed their faith in Mr. Putin, who ruled Russia for 22 years with the support of many Russians.
“We trust our president,” said a Moscow tourist, also named Yulia. “I don’t think we will lead us to collapse.” Her husband Oleg intervened quietly, “Well, it’s already collapsed.”
Others tried to enjoy what they saw as their ultimate view of the outside world.
“We decided to relax, as if it was the last time,” said Ravil, a Moscow-based designer. “We do not understand whether we will return to the same country from which we left.”
Ksenia Barakovskaya contributed reporting.
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