Sunday, June 15, 2008

Free and Flush, Russians Eager to Roam Abroad

One of the most enduring changes in the lives of Russians in recent years has occurred not in Russia itself, but in places like this coastal region of Turkey, where an influx of Russian tourists has given rise to a mini-industry catering to their needs. A people who under Communism were rarely allowed to venture abroad, and then lacked money to do so when the political barriers first fell, are now seeing the world. And relishing it.

There is perhaps no better symbol of the growth in Russian tourism than the very resort where Ms. Kasyanova was staying, the Kremlin Palace Hotel, a kind of Las-Vegas-does-Moscow-by-the-shore extravaganza whose buildings are replicas of major sights at the Kremlin complex and nearby neighborhood. Why go to any old spot when you can frolic by the pool while gazing at the reassuring onion domes of a faux St. Basil’s Cathedral? (No need to bundle up against the cold, either!)

Ms. Kasyanova, 51, a health-care aide from the Kaluga region, 125 miles southwest of Moscow, has been to Egypt, Hungary and Turkey in the last few years and has Western Europe in her sights. For her and other Russians interviewed here, foreign travel reflects not just Russia’s economic revival under Vladimir V. Putin, but also how the country has become, in some essential ways, normal.

If you have some time and a little money, you can travel. Just like everyone else in the world.

“It is now so easy — buy a package tour for $800, and here we are, in paradise,” said Ms. Kasyanova, who, like many Russians here, was amused by the resort’s trappings but also interested in exploring the mountains and other places nearby. “It speaks of the high standard of life in Russia, of the improvement in life in Russia.”

The Russians are coming from all over. At the local airport here, the arrivals screen was like a primer in Russian geography, with charter flights from Moscow, Rostov-on-Don in the south, Kazan in the center, Novosibirsk in Siberia and other cities in between.

The number of Russian tourists visiting countries outside the former Soviet Union grew to 7.1 million in 2006, the last year statistics were available, from 2.6 million in 1995, according to the Russian government.

A record 2.5 million Russians visited Turkey in 2007, up 33 percent from 2006, Turkish officials said. Only Germany, that paragon of European wealth, sends more tourists to Turkey. (By contrast, in 1988, a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of 22,000 Soviet citizens visited Turkey.)

The Russian tourism boom is happening as new low-cost airlines in Europe have spurred a sharp increase in tourism across the Continent. But for the Russians, the chance to travel is especially prized.

For the first time in Russian history, wide swaths of the citizenry are being exposed to life in far-off lands, helping to ease a kind of insularity and parochialism that built up in the Soviet era. Back then, the public was not only prevented from going abroad; it was also inculcated with propaganda that the Soviet Union was unquestionably the world’s best country, so there was no need to leave anyway.

People who desired foreign travel in Soviet times typically had to receive official approval, and if it was granted, they were closely chaperoned once they crossed the border. Even before they left, they often were sent to classes to be indoctrinated in how to behave and avoid the perils of foreign influence. Those who were not in good standing with the party had little chance of going.

The controls on travel were particularly onerous given Russia’s long and dark winters.

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