Soon afterwards, Russia retaliated and closed its airspace to all European aircraft.
Other countries, such as Canada, have since followed the EU and consequently, the number of aircraft and flights affected has increased.
The most immediate effect is on travelers to and from Russia as many flights have been canceled.
Meanwhile, a number of leased Russian planes will be recalled or seized in the next few weeks because the latest EU sanctions cut off the supply of aircraft parts and technology to that country and consequently its ability to insure planes starting March 28. This will impact Russian air travel as well.
So, what does this mean for international air travelers?
Just as the travel industry was looking to emerge from a two-year depression, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has scrambled schedules and given travelers pause as they consider international vacations.
The extent to which travelers will feel the effects of the war depends on where they’re going but with the rising price of oil, airline ticket prices will only go up. Understand: For anyone with international plans, the world map, which recently seemed to be expanding with the relaxation of COVID restrictions in many countries, has shrunk anew. Operators have largely scrapped travel in Russia for the rest of the year, which greatly affects Baltic cruise itineraries where the marquee port of call was St. Petersburg.
So far, travel companies are not seeing mass cancellations as travelers, who may have been conditioned to remain flexible by the pandemic, are sticking to their resolve. The overwhelming feeling is that after two moribund years, most consumers are making plans that accept higher prices, longer transit times or other deterrents in order to travel in 2022.
They’ve come to accept PCR tests or vaccination certificates as part of the process, and unless oil prices hit $200 a barrel, the demand is so colossal that the direct result of this barbaric war has not seen a shift in bookings.
Whatever inconveniences travelers experience are, of course, nothing compared to the suffering inflicted on Ukrainians. Many travelers want to support Europeans, who have been hoping for a robust summer season, but do not want to complicate humanitarian efforts to help war refugees.
Given the unpredictability of the war, travelers will need to remain flexible as flight operations, cruises and tours adjust to the conflict. Flying over Russian or Ukrainian airspace has now been shut down; airlines that flew over either country have been forced to fly alternative routes. Aeroflot, the national carrier of Russia, has shut down all international operations indefinitely. Not welcome in the vast majority of the world’s airports, the cessation of the airline has been mirrored by all airlines who once flew in and out of Russia and Ukraine.
Many countries have imposed sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has retaliated by advising its citizens against traveling to these destinations, although the lack of airlines makes it near impossible to fly out of the country.
RUSSIANS HAD been making up a larger proportion of tourists in many European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries over the past couple of decades, with some resorts on the Mediterranean basing their economies around visitors from the country. With most European countries imposing sanctions against Russia and therefore becoming off limits to Russian travelers – any such trips carry the risk of the travelers being denied a scheduled, safe return to Russia.
The World Tourism Organization reported that Turkey, China, Kazakhstan, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia and Italy were the top 10 destinations in terms of international departures from Russia by number of travelers in 2021, with the modes of transport including air, land, sea and rail. Suffice it to say Russian tourists will not be welcome in Ukraine in the foreseeable future.
Turkey and Greece are among the destinations most dependent on the Russian market. It is possible that these countries, in the coming weeks, will have to increase their efforts to attract tourists from other markets, demonstrate greater competition and lower prices to counteract a possible decrease in tourism from Russia. Experts presume that Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel was also connected to the massive amounts of tourists that Israel used to send to the Turkish resorts; ones that most likely will be bereft of Russians this spring and summer.
Perhaps no sector of the travel industry has been more affected than tour operators that had trips scheduled in Russia and, to a lesser extent, its neighbors. Russia over the last dozen years has seen a spectacular growth in incoming tourism, adding billions of dollars into the Russian coffers. Those days are over along with the hundreds of cruises that welcomed the opportunity to luxuriate in St. Petersburg.
Not surprisingly very few travelers have canceled their trips to Europe, even Eastern Europe. While the talk of World War III has been bandied about, by none other than the president of the United States, it has had a near minimal impact on the flying public. Truth be told, from this part of the world, the US and Western Europe – along with the United Arab Emirates – are where the majority of travel plans are being made, and flights closer to home such as Budapest and the Czech Republic are getting their share of bookings.
More surprisingly the biggest jump in bookings for Israelis this winter has been to Georgia. Tbilisi in particular has proven seductive to the ski enthusiasts, enticing thousands to explore the slopes of the Georgian mountains. In fact, with the ability to get kosher food at the resorts, we have seen an outpouring of families flying to Georgia at unseen levels, in pre-COVID years. Chabad of Tbilisi, as well as other Israeli operators, have seen the public’s desire for skiing far beyond the most optimistic predictions. El Al jumped into this opening with several flights a week along with Israir.
Returning travelers speak about the fantastic prices, excellent conditions and the warmth of their Georgian hosts. Fear of avalanches or concerns over local hospitals are the only issues raised. That it has a nearly 900 km.-long border with Russia running from the Black Sea to the Greater Caucasus mountains has had no influence on the tourists. While Romania or Budapest once attracted the price-conscious ski aficionado, Georgia is where a multitude of skiers are seeking the next big dump.
ISRAELIS, WITH the exception of those visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have almost universally gone West the last two months, and the spring season sees no change in that outlook. India is opening up to tourists, South Africa and Australia have their supporters but with the Middle Kingdom still battling COVID and placing entire cities in lockdown, it’s the US and Western Europe that are calling out to Israelis.
Traffic to the US has never been more robust, and airfares have reached and extended their 2019 heights. Wizz Air may be starting to fly from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi but with no low-cost carrier flying to the United States, legacy carriers are seeing record numbers of passengers and revenues on those routes. Yes, the United States, along with Canada, only allows tourists who are fully vaccinated to enter their countries but there is no shortage of eligible Israelis along with dual passport holders electing to fly this spring to North America.
Paris and London flights are also filling up rapidly, and as tourists return to Israel, the short-term prognosis is very rosy for the aviation industry. Social media is replete with advertisements seeking staff in incoming tours companies as they now find themselves understaffed as demand has far outstripped supply.
All of us hope the conflict in Ukraine will end quickly and peacefully. Until then, travelers need to factor the fighting there into their planning. It’s hard to envision a situation of going back to square one. There will be a palatable fear of ever setting foot in Russia again. WNBA star Brittney Griner is being detained in Russia after customs officials said they found cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow in February. The timing, legal experts and league sources agree, couldn’t be worse, coming amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a collapse in US-Russia relations.
Whatever aspirations my Russian colleagues in the tourism industry may have had about a deeper integration with the Western world has been shattered. Those fortunate to have visited Russia in the last decade may be seen as the last pioneers as front-page news and constant television images of the mass suffering of civilian populations in Ukraine will create a strong backlash to visiting the country responsible for these inhumane attacks.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem and a director at Diesenhaus.
For questions and comments email him at [email protected]