If you’re looking for Russian tourists in Europe this summer, they’re likely to be harder to spot than ever.
According to Schengen Visa Info there were 90% fewer Russian visitors to Europe, and as this year’s summer tourist season hots up that figure is not likely to change very much at all.
While the very wealthiest Russians continue to visit the region, middle-class tourists have almost entirely disappeared, citing mounting logistical difficulties and costs.
The reason is of course Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine, which has prompted the West to erect barriers not seen since the dark days of the Cold War in support of its embattled ally.
But what effect is this loss of Russian tourists having on Europe? We look at two destinations that border Russia, and two destinations which used to welcome tens of thousands of Russian tourists to find out more:
Latvia has long been a magnet for Russian travellers, owing to its location and historical ties as part of the Soviet Union.
The tiny Baltic state’s vibrant tourism industry was battered by the COVID pandemic, like many others, but losing visitors from Russia really put the boot in.
In solidarity with Ukraine, Russian tourists were banned in September 2022, with the country’s Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics tweeting “you’re not welcome here – you need to end the war against Ukraine and be gone from that beautiful country!”
“Russia was an important market,” Vladislavs Korjagins, CEO of the Baltic Travel Group told Euronews. “Of course, we are missing it.”
“From an economic perspective, this decision may not have helped local businesses. But, on the political level, we support Ukraine.”
“It’s the right decision,” he added. “People understand we cannot welcome Russian tourists, while their soldiers are attacking Ukrainians.”
The “biggest blow” from the Ukraine war was that many Westerners now felt the Baltics were unsafe, possibly the “next target” for Russian troops, though this misperception was now improving, explained Korjagins.
Some 70% of group bookings were cancelled in the aftermath of the Feburary 2022 invasion, according to estimates from the Latvian tourism sector.
Yet, the industry was not accepting these losses idly.
It has diversified into new, untapped markets, such as the Gulf, and become more efficient through scaling down labour costs, according to Korjagins.
“Truth is: We adapted,” he added.
Around 1.2 million Russian daytrippers travelled by bus or car over the border into eastern Finland every single year, before the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion, official figures show.
While some were checking into hotels, most spent money in local supermarkets – on average €170 per day in the city of Lappeenranta.
But much of the tourist infrastructure in Finland’s Lakeland District did not necessarily rely on Russian tourists, despite their large volume.
“People who were really catering to cross-border traffic are no longer in business,” explained Mirka Rahman, Lappeenranta’s Director of Tourism. “There were a lot of mini-buses and bigger buses bringing the daily visitors but they were all Russian and not Finnish companies.”
“They bought clothes, detergent, chocolate, fish, the majority of it was food items from the supermarket as Finnish brands are known for high quality. Some of it was to take home for themselves, and some of it was to take home and sell,” she told Euronews.
That pre-war flood of visitors across the EU’s longest border with Russia has now slowed to a trickle — restricted to dual nationals or those with a visa allowing them to come and go.
The South Karelia region, with Lappeenranta its biggest city, area lost around 100,000 Russian overnight stays since the start of the war, but has pivoted towards marketing more to Finns as a domestic holiday destination, while looking for customers in Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries – tourists who spend far more per day, Rahman noted, than Russian visitors.
“The trends have changed,” said Rahman. “Nobody here is calculating on the return of the Russians.”
Not only those on Russia’s borders are affected.
Although the country was never a major source of visitors to Spain, dwarfed by the English, German and French, Russians were one of the fastest-growing groups in recent years, as per veri from the Salou Cambrils La Pineda Hotel Association.
Around 1.3 million Russian travellers arrived in the southern European country in 2019, representing 1.3% of the total, according to Spain’s National Statistics Institute.
Yet, their absence is still felt, particularly since some areas were more heavily reliant on Russian tourists than others, such as Costa Dorada, where they represented between 10% and 15% of all visitors.
“Last year the effects of the lack of tourism were clear and this year it is also noticeable,” Albert Savé, President of the Costa Dorada Hotel Association, in Cataluña, told Euronews.
He says there were 1,290,000 overnight stays in the area in 2019, which has now gone to zero – bar the “one or two Russians” coming by car or through Turkey or Finland.
What set Russians apart, Savé continues, was their high level of luxury consumption, which supported specialist local businesses.
“When they were here, [Russians] did spend because they came from afar… They would go on a lot of excursions… [and] buy products from the area… because of the attraction of wine, oil, sausages… clothes,” he said.
“Their behaviour was different from [the] British, who come for the sun.”
Czech spa towns have seen a sharp drop in wealthy Russian visitors, like Spain.
Towns Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne and Frantiskovy Lazne saw a glimmer of hope when UNESCO listed them as World Heritage sites in 2021.
But their joy was short-lived.
When Russia’s tanks steamed across the Ukrainian border, the Central European country joined European sanctions slapped on the country.
The share of Russian customers – their biggest spenders, who also stay far longer than locals – fell from 61,000 in 2019 to just a few thousand last year.
“The average Czech tourist spends around 700 crowns (€30) a day. Russian-speaking guests spend more than 3,500 crowns (€150),” said CzechTourism Director Jan Herget.
Losing Russian tourists was only part of their troubles, however.
Spa towns are also grappling with staff shortages, with Czech unemployed at 3.5% over the past two years, and inflation only now just declining from a record high of 18% in September.