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Rolling the red carpet for Russians tourists

For the past few years, a major marketing target for destinations looking to beef up their revenue from the tourism industry has been the Russians. Now that the Russian economy is in full swing, wealthy entrepreneurs, “nouveau riche” and members of a growing upper-middle class are flocking to exotic destinations more than ever –a major reason why the World Tourism Organization has predicted the Russians will rank number 10 in the top tourism-generating countries by the year 2020

The tourism industry better be on guard for an increasingly apparent Russian invasion. Spurred by a healthier than ever economy, the face and habits of the Russian tourist of just a few years ago - often one who had been able to profit from the privatisation of the Soviet economy - are being replaced by a growing middle class which travels more than ever, both for business and for pleasure. And as is the case for many countries somewhat recently open to a more liberated economy, they are eager to spend. Whether it be for sunning on the beaches of Thailand or skiing in the Swiss Alps, Russians are doing it in style.Perhaps the Americans don’t think they need Russian tourists (though the state of their economy might disagree), but most other countries definitely see the interest in wooing this growing and varied market. Ms. Boutet of the CGTT travel agency confirms, “it is interesting to note that the Russian travelling population is very mixed –we have young entrepreneurs, middle-aged couples, older people…It is a varied group and their tastes, though more turned towards luxury than ever, reflect this fact.” With the strength of the Russian market only growing, it is worth the efforts to ca-ter to this unique tourist population.According to the Russian federal tourism agency, during the first 9 months of 2007, 26.3 million Russians went on vacation and 7.2 million tourist trips were taken outside Russia’s borders. In 2006, this number was less than 6 million. Destinations which saw the most growth in terms of their appeal to Russians were Thailand, with 75% growth, Egypt (50%), Turkey (27%), Austria (41%) and the Netherlands (40%). The increase in the number of Russians travelling outside of their country, and that when they are abroad they do want to take advantage of their trips, prompts many tourism boards to boost their advertising.It seems as though Russian tourists are decent spenders in every sense –trends show that their frequenting of gourmet restaurants, high-end shopping, and of course luxury hotels and resorts are higher than European norms. A recent study on the spending habits of Europeans in major tourist destinations with regard to on-line hotel reservations showed that the Russians are willing to spend an average of 146 eurso for a hotel room, while UK tourists are number 2 on the list with 138 euros. French tourists pay an average of only 124 euros and those who spend the least are the Finnish at 111 euros.So how do potential destinations make it on their top-ten list? Well, marketing plays a big role. For any destination wanting to attract Russian tourism, one of the major ways to make it on the market is the annual Moscow International Travel and Tourism exhibition (or another yearly event, the Otdykh-Leisure). Over 2,700 companies and tourism authorities meet and greet over 120,000 buyers from all over Russia. Aside of the established European or Mediterranean destinations (Courchevel for skiing, Turkey for the beaches…), Russian tourists are more often than ever looking for adventure –safaris in Africa, trekking in South America, or most recently kitesurfing in the Philippines. Norway, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Switzerland, and China have all benefited from massive advertising campaigns in Russia. Each of these countries has seen increases in their Russian tourists since implementing their campaigns, sometimes doubling or tripling their influx. Knowing that the market has enormous potential, a country like Morocco, which has an ambitious goal of welcoming 150,000 Russian tourists in 2010, has no problem sinking millions into an advertising campaign in Russia.Other destinations that have been benefiting from Russian tourism for a few years now, like the Swiss Alps, are past needing marketing tactics, but are going further out of their way to make their Soviet guests feel more comfortable –and with good reason. According to the Swiss tourist office, Russians spend an average of 430 Swiss francs a day, twice as much as Germans. In the five-star hotels of St. Moritz, Russians make up 90 percent of their guests in the first part of January. This is quite a reason for hotel staff to begin taking courses in the Russian language. Yet not only are staff now learning the language, but local businessmen who see the potential for lucrative business partnerships are brushing up on their vocabulary as well. In Turkey, some hotels have stopped trying to woo the German market, and have opted to cater more to the more lucrative Russians by stocking up on popular Russian music and of course the ubiquitous Russian favourite, vodka.As for the French, they have the added advantage of a long cultural history with the Russians, and this highly-coveted tourist market is already a major consumer of tourism in the République. “The average Russian travelling to France is already quite cultivated, knowledgeable and interested in French culture –even ten years ago, when Russians were coming and staying in two- and three-star hotels,” says Angela Boutet, a travel consultant for CGTT, a travel agency specialised in tourism between France, Russia and Eastern European countries. “Nowadays, aside of popular destinations like the mountains, they come to see a specific show or ballet at the Opéra and they often already have the hotel picked out. We do many “à la carte” tours, with themes like the chateaux of the Loire, vineyards, or gourmet food.”Regular flights from Russia to Paris and Nice exist for quite some time, and in November 2007, a direct flight to Lyon has opened. Charter flights fly direct to the Alps, and in the summertime to Marseilles, Strasbourg and Dijon. There is even talk of a train line running from Moscow to Berlin to Paris. Approximately 55% of Russian visitors are from Moscow, the rest from other regions, and when they visit France, 70% stay in hotels or hotel residences. A study by Maison de la France shows that expenditures by Russian tourists in France are well above those of most Europeans: they are willing to spend on average 156 euros per night for a room (compared with the European average of 122 euros), and they spend 700 euros on average on other items during their stay, excluding personal expenses. Maison de la France predicts that 2008 could see a rise of more than 20% in Russian clients visiting France.Despite the positive results for France, one cannot deny that requirements for visas can be a deterrent. Conscious of this fact, the French Consulate underwent a major overhaul of the visa delivery system in 2007. After only a couple of rough months in May and June while the system was put in place, the new efficiency is reflected in the number of visas issued. Over the first 8 months, visas for Russians wishing to visit France increased by 5.07% versus 2006, or a total of 179,384 versus only 170,727 in 2006. The easier system is expected to lower turnover time for most visas to 3 days.Easing visa regulations for Russians is a recent trend which some countries are using as another means to enticing Russian tourists, like Israel decided in a recent meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers. As a result, roughly 300,000 Russians are expected to visit Israel in 2008, and the airline and hotel industries are preparing for an increase in Russian tourism of up to 30%. Another example is the infrastructure in some countries being improved specifically in order to provide for Russian tourists, as the Philippine government decided to do. As nearly 1 million Russians travelled to Southeast Asia in 2007 and the Philippines only registered 30,000 out of this impressive number, the government decided not only to build more international airports and to provide direct flights from Russia.One of the markets noticeably absent from the top destinations for Russian tourists are the United States. Even with the value of the dollar as low as it is, the US have not been able to woo the Russian tourist segment due to one major reason: the visa issue. The procedure is quite lengthy and complex for a Russian to obtain a visa to visit the United States, as is the case for many foreigners who wish to visit the country. Since studies show that Russians tend to reserve rather late, sometimes less than two weeks before their departure, they often tend to choose destinations where the turnaround time for a visa is short. With so many other countries knocking on Russia’s door for tourists, the United States is often never given a thought due to their stringent policies.Perhaps the Americans don’t think they need Russian tourists (though the state of their economy might disagree), but most other countries definitely see the interest in wooing this growing and varied market. Ms. Boutet of the CGTT travel agency confirms, “it is interesting to note that the Russian travelling population is very mixed –we have young entrepreneurs, middle-aged couples, older people…It is a varied group and their tastes, though more turned towards luxury than ever, reflect this fact.” With the strength of the Russian market only growing, it is worth the efforts to ca-ter to this unique tourist population.

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