Weekly column by Natalia Antonova
The news of violence coming out of Egypt is horrifying, and it must be said, unfortunately, that we haven’t seen the end of the horror. So why are Russians continuing to flock to the country for vacation this month?
The short answer is economics. Vacation packages to Egypt have always been relatively cheap. They are especially affordable for sun-starved Russian families who live far from the capital and/or don’t pull in “Moscow-level” salaries.
There is also the visa issue to consider. Although more and more countries’ consulates have gotten increasingly friendly toward Russian tourists over the years, the mere fact that a Russian citizen does not need a visa to Egypt automatically makes it a coveted destination, especially for travelers who can’t, for whatever reason, plan very far ahead.
Today, the bigger issue here is that it is actually pretty difficult to change your vacation plans at the last minute when everything has already been booked. Many Russian tourism agencies are already notoriously difficult to deal with – causing some travelers to simply throw caution to the wind and hope for the best, though their numbers are shrinking.
When the Egyptian revolution first rolled into town, Russians saw that the violence was largely contained in urban centers. The political conflict in Egypt was perceived as something very much internal and not focused on tourist hot-spots. The Egyptian Tourism Ministry made all the right kinds of statements as well. “Whatever the issues are, they have nothing to do with us,” many travelers correctly reasoned.
Obviously, the situation is much more serious now. Following the July 3 military coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power after the 2011 revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, violence is spreading. The Russian Foreign Ministry is asking Russians not to go to Egypt – and the market appears to be reflecting their wishes.
According to Gazeta.ru, most Russians are no longer buying tours to Egypt – as even the most optimistic travelers can tell which way the wind is blowing. Yet what about those who paid for everything up front? A significant proportion of these people are going ahead and flying in.
Moskovsky Komsomolets shot a fascinating video featuring Russian tourists heading to Egypt’s Hurghada, a tourist town on the Red Sea, from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport last week.
One of the women featured believes that if the situation in Egypt were “really serious,” the Russian authorities would halt civilian flights. Another woman joked “Egypt has a good army – and will protect us should they need to.”
It is obvious from their body language that the tourists in that video are nervous, but they clearly feel that they won’t be able to get their money back. Hundreds of complaints have already poured in to the Russian consumer watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, about travel agencies refusing to pay people back for canceled travel packages.
I don’t wish to label the people who are flying out as ignorant, particularly as the Russian tourism watchdog, Rostourism, has issued a statement on August 18 describing Hurghada as currently “peaceful,” emphasizing the fact that Russian tourists are safe there.
What fascinates me about the video is the curious fatalism of one woman, who says that, basically, her fate is in God’s hands. This is the typical expression of someone who has grown used to living in an unpredictable country, and who is accustomed to relying on God rather than officials.
After watching the video, an Egyptian-American friend of mine who speaks some Russian told me that he identified with the woman’s cheerful resignation. We agreed that most of our American friends would be shocked by it – but for those who are used to distrusting both the government and the media, God and fate are all that’s left.
A Moscow friend of mine who canceled her vacation plans to Egypt – but only after she realized she could get a full refund from her travel agent, which is now sending her to Tunisia – told me that she was very sorry to have to do that.
“I really like Egypt – it’s seen as this cheap, last-minute destination where you can drink a lot of free booze, but it’s actually a fascinating and beautiful country, and I’m really worried for the people there,” my friend told me. “And tourist dollars are important to the economy. And, well, I feel Egypt needs our support right now. But I have small children, so I had to do the safe thing. Still, I’m probably one of the few people doing that. Summer is almost over. Everyone wants a last hurrah.”
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.
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