Travel to Russia on a big upswing

Travel to Russia on a big upswing

Some tour operators have said that talk arising from
questions about president Trump’s relationship with Russia during and after the
election campaign appear to have triggered a renewed interest among Americans
in visiting the country.

Others attributed a bump in Russia travel to a strong dollar
and pent-up demand following a fall-off in interest after Russia seized Crimea
from Ukraine in March 2014.

Whatever the reason, “The demand this year is
noticeable,” said Annie Lucas, vice president of Seattle-based MIR Corp.,
a tour operator that specializes in Russia, Europe and Asia.

Lucas said that in terms of total passenger counts, the
company’s current custom groups to Russia are already surpassing MIR’s total
for all of 2016, and private group and FIT bookings to Russia have roughly
doubled compared with this time last year. 

“It’s been in the news so much,” Lucas said,
adding that regardless of the current rhetoric, pent-up demand for Russia
following the fallout in bookings that occurred during and after the off-and-on
Crimea crisis of 2014 and 2015 has led to a rebound in Russia bookings.

“It seems that people have maybe tired of waiting to go
back to Russia,” said Lucas. “The destination has been really busy.”

She said that the strong dollar against a weakened ruble has
also helped. In addition, Lucas cited ongoing hotel and infrastructure
development in Russia’s blockbuster destinations, Moscow and St. Petersburg, as
well as in more off-the-beaten-path places throughout the country, such as in
southern Russia and Siberia.

Intrepid Travel, for example, has seen the number of U.S.
travelers booking its Trans-Siberian Railway tour double this year compared
with last. It has also seen growth in U.S. customers booking more adventurous
Russia trips, such as the company’s Footsteps of Russia’s Reindeer Herders
expedition.

Overall, Intrepid is reports a 7% increase in Americans
traveling to Russia this year compared with last year.

For some tour operators, the sudden spike in Russia bookings
after several lackluster years was so unexpected that it caught them off-guard.

“Russia sales are off the charts,” said Trafalgar
president Paul Wiseman. “We did not forecast that, and we’ve been just
scrambling.”

Wiseman’s guess as to why Russia is suddenly back in demand
is that the destination is “being discussed openly [in the news] and not
in an absolute negative way. It’s not related to terrible news, and people are
saying, ‘All right, we’re going to go and check this out.'”

Viking River Cruises, which reduced its inventory from five
vessels on Russia’s Volga River to three following the Crimea annexation slump,
has increased its inventory back to four ships for 2017.

“On quite a few sailings this season, multiple
stateroom categories are already sold out,” said Richard Marnell, Viking’s
senior vice president of marketing.

Marnell added: “Russia has appeared on several magazine
lists as a top-recommended destination to visit in 2017, and there are
favorable exchange rates against the ruble, which are two factors that make it
a very attractive destination right now.”

Even so, not everyone is seeing huge growth in Russia
bookings for 2017.

Carl Cross, managing director of On the Go Tours, said the
company had experienced a 30% increase in bookings to Russia from the U.S.
between July 1 and Dec. 31 last year compared with the same period in 2015, but
he said that for the first two months of 2017, bookings to Russia are flat
compared with last year.

Nevertheless, the outlook seems promising heading into 2018.

“We are seeing an increase in enquiries from the USA
for [Russia] tours next year for the 100th anniversary of the execution of the
Romanovs and the fall of the empire in 1918,” Cross said.

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