Israel risking a halt in Russian tourism - opinion

Russian tourism is huge, second in quantity only to that of the US. This amounts to roughly 10% of all foreign tourists coming into Israel.

 An Aeroflot Airbus A350-900 at an airport outside Moscow. Most of Aeroflot’s planes are leased from Western companies and sanctions are not allowing them to fly (photo credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)
An Aeroflot Airbus A350-900 at an airport outside Moscow. Most of Aeroflot’s planes are leased from Western companies and sanctions are not allowing them to fly

One factor (relatively minor, I guess) to consider regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the effect on international tourism. The subject reminds me of a joke:

Border guard: “Nationality?”

Tourist: “Russian.”

Border guard: “Occupation?”

Tourist: “No, no, just visiting.”

I’m not sure if this old joke is funnier – or much less funny – since the invasion, but the fact is that Russians travel. A lot.

 People arrive at Ben Gurion Airport on February 13 from Ukraine.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) People arrive at Ben Gurion Airport on February 13 from Ukraine. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In 2019, Russia had the sixth-highest total international tourism expenditure in the world, spending over $35 billion. In 2021, almost 20 million outbound tourist trips were taken by Russians.

This accounts for roughly 1% of world tourism, according to Euromonitor International’s Travel Forecast Model. One percent may not sound like much, but it adds up. Russians are known as “big spenders” who spend more on average than other tourists – and it isn’t evenly distributed:

Russia is, by far, the top source of Turkey’s tourists – seven million of them in 2019. In 2021, visitors from Russia accounted for a startling 40% of total arrivals in Cuba, according to the country’s National Office of Statistics and Information. Vietnam has been receiving more and more Russian visitors, with the beach town of Nha Trang often dubbed “Little Russia” due to the number – and wealth – of Russian tourists who frequent it. 

Russia was the third-biggest source of tourists to Thailand before the pandemic, spending over $3b. in the country. In 2019, over 500,000 Russian tourists visited Greece and over 450,000 went to Bulgaria. Twelve percent of all arrivals in Finland came from Russia. Russians make up 20% of all international tourists in Cyprus.

With Russian international tourism expected to drop significantly (due to the lack of flights, sanctions, the weak ruble, general financial insecurity, and “technical” issues such as Visa and Mastercard cutting off services to all cards issued in Russia), the countries listed above, and many others, are already feeling the pain, and are extremely concerned about the future. 

On the other hand, some select locations may actually benefit from the “re-direction” of Russian tourism: the Russian government is encouraging domestic tourism. In a country the size of Russia, there is much to see, including warm spots. Similarly, close pro-Russian locales such as Belarus and Abkhazia (the name given to the separatist coastal region of Georgia since the 2008 war), which will work with Russians (and the ruble) due to political allegiances, are likely to receive more and more Russian tourists.

What about Israel?

Obviously, few Ukrainians will be able to visit Israel any time soon. That is actually more significant than one may have thought, as over 180,000 Ukrainian tourists visited Israel in 2019, the seventh-highest country in terms of visitors.

Poland was eighth on the list of “sources of tourism” to Israel. Considering the millions of Ukrainian refugees in Poland and the shock to the Polish economy, it remains to be seen how many Polish tourists will come this year. The assumption is far fewer than in previous years.

The main question for Israel, of course, is tourism from Russia itself. Over the years, Israel has become more popular with Russian tourists, and aside from the pandemic and the economic crisis in Russia in 2015, those numbers have been steadily on the rise.

Why has Russian tourism to Israel been growing? There are many factors. The relative stability in Israel has led to increased tourism from the entire globe. Russia has almost 150 million citizens, who love to travel. As the Russian economy has grown, so has its outbound tourism – to everywhere. For a country the size of Israel, Russian tourism is huge, second in quantity only to that of the US. This amounts to roughly 10% of all foreign tourists coming into the country.

There are many “motivations” for Russian visits to Israel, such as religious pilgrimages and the desire for the warm beaches of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Furthermore, the commonality of the Russian language in Israel makes it easier for Russian-speaking travelers and makes them feel at home. (After Hebrew and Arabic, Russian is the most spoken language in Israel, which boasts the highest percentage of Russian-speakers anywhere outside the former Soviet bloc.)

With this much Russian tourism at risk, it is no wonder that Israel is concerned about the future. Aside from the sheer economic impact of a disruption in this sector, Russian-born Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov is said to be (understandably) very sensitive to the importance of Russian tourism to the Israeli economy.

On the promising side, Israel is one of the few Western countries that still has flights to Russia, so there is hope. Also, Russian travelers are often late “planners,” meaning it is not necessarily too late for this summer.

Even today, at the high end (five-star hotel type visitors), there are wealthy Russians who are still traveling. Mikail Ilyin, who runs a tour business in Thailand catering to Russian tourists and has seen a recent increase in interest, explains their reasoning: “They think ‘we don’t know what will happen tomorrow... let’s enjoy life today. Maybe there will be a nuclear war or maybe Russia will become a closed country like North Korea. Nobody knows. Let’s travel today.’”

Still, the number of wealthy Russian travelers is relatively small, and Russian outbound tourism, on the whole, is way, way down.

The weakness of the ruble is the main issue, but not the only one. German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war was “the continuation of politics by other means.” The reverse is also true: using politics (or in this case, tourism) as a form of political pressure is more common than we might think. For example, much of Russian outbound tourism depends on the availability of budget charter flights, permission for which is granted by Russia’s transportation ministry. As someone put it: “Russia can threaten to stop the gas in the winter and stop the tourists in the summer.”

If a country is dependent on Russia for tourists, how strongly can it criticize the invasion, really? Being “nice” to Russia in terms of one’s attitudes and statements about the invasion may determine how many Russian tourists a country gets – or doesn’t get. A parallel: while the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency still have not approved the Russian corona vaccine, Sputnik, many wonder how countries friendly to Russia (and more dependent on its tourism) seem to be more accepting of its efficacy. Coincidence? For Israel, the question is, how well we can walk the tightrope of supporting Ukraine while not turning Russia into an enemy?

A quick look at Birthright’s Russian-language website (and the help of Google Translate) reveals that Birthright is hoping to run many trips from Russia this spring and summer. Considering the economic instability in Russia now, who wouldn’t take a free trip to Israel to just have a vacation and/or in order to get acquainted with the country? Indeed, there is a strong demand. But it isn’t simple. I consulted with Rabbi Yaakov Tipograph, who works in Olami’s FSU (Former Soviet Union) division. Before corona, thousands of Jews would come to Israel from the FSU on various educational and social trips run by various organizations. During the pandemic, everything froze. Now?

“Russian Jews want to come and we all want to bring them,” said Tipograph. “The problems now are financial and practical. Most of Aeroflot’s planes are leased from Western companies, and sanctions are not allowing them to fly. El Al is flying, but there aren’t many flights. And what exists is very booked and very expensive. We are looking for other ways to bring groups this summer, but nothing concrete has been decided yet.”

Rabbi Avi Cassel, regional director for Olami in North America and who also oversees their operations in the FSU, explained that despite the increased costs and complications, “there is great demand among Russian students and young people to come. We hope groups will come this summer from the various fine Jewish organizations operating in the FSU.”

There are other Russian-speaking Jews coming, but not from Russia itself. Since its inception in 2006, the RAJE program (Russian-American Jewish Experience) has brought thousands of Russian-American Jews to Israel. They are planning to come again this summer. As Russian-Hebrew-English speaking tour guide in Israel Slava Bazaraksy explained: “There is certainly Russian-language tourism happening. Russian speakers from Lithuania, America, and London are here right now.”

But what about the BIG numbers of Russian tourists – those coming from Russia itself? I asked two respected Russian-speaking tour guides in Israel what they saw happening for this spring and summer.

“After corona, we hoped for the resumption of tourism,” said Gregory Tyshler. “The war ruined everything. I work in Russian. In the near future I do not see a tourist flow in my niche.”

Added Bazaraksy: “There is no real tourism from Russia itself. A few Jews are coming to stay, not to tour. The ruble is officially at 80 to the dollar, but in practice to buy a dollar it can cost 200! For the middle class, a vacation in Israel – or just about anywhere outside of Russia – is now impossible. The wealthy are here. And are coming even more – but they are coming to get a passport if their family is Jewish or partially Jewish. They aren’t coming to tour.”

Lydia Weitzman, spokeswoman for the Tourism Ministry, said that overall, Israel “is registering a gradual increase in tourism since the re-opening of Israel’s skies last month. This trend can be seen and heard in the tourist, religious and cultural sites around the country. It should be noted that there is currently almost no outbound tourism from Russia and Ukraine to any country, including to Israel.”

Indeed, tourism from Russia to Israel has plummeted and has little hope of recovering in the near future.

The writer is a speaker and licensed tour guide.