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Life's Not A (Foreign) Beach For Russians

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian tourists take belly-dancing lessons at a Red Sea resort last month. Meanwhile, a senior tourism official has raised hackles at home by suggesting beach holidays may be anathema to the Russian soul.

Russian tourists take belly-dancing lessons at a Red Sea resort last month. Meanwhile, a senior tourism official has raised hackles at home by suggesting beach holidays may be anathema to the Russian soul.

MOSCOW -- There's good news for Russians concerned about not being able to vacation in Egypt or Turkey -- sunny beach vacations are not in their blood anyway.

"The need for the beach and the sea -- this stereotype, which we already accept as our own opinion, was in large part imposed [upon Russia] in recent years," the head of Russia's state agency for tourism told Rossiiskaya Gazeta this week. "Our ancestors, even the most affluent, did not travel en masse to the sea abroad."

If good citizens insist on having their fun in the sun, Rosturizm head Oleg Safonov suggests they consider the newly annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Another alternative -- train trips! To keep holidaymakers home, Safonov tells the government newspaper, Russia should make use of its extensive rail network by developing tours around the country. And borrowing an idea that has proven effective in luring Russians to faraway destinations, Safonov advises the government to develop all-inclusive domestic vacation packages.

Safonov's comments, published on November 7, prompted an outpouring of derision online. The chattering classes noted that Russians' choice of holiday destinations severely diminished over the past year as the ruble lost half its value and Egypt and Turkey were ruled out as destinations.

The torrent of angry commentary quickened after reports emerged alleging that Safonov himself owned two villas on the Seychelles Islands -- and drove a Mercedes-Benz and a Bentley.

Lyubov Sobol, an activist for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, published Safonov's official 2014 income and property declaration in which the Rosturizm head declared he owned the two properties on the tropical islands in the Indian Ocean.

"On 'the ascetic' and 'warrior against stereotypes' Oleg Safonov, head of Rosturizm," Sobol wrote mockingly on Twitter.

"Yes, they take us for idiots," she wrote on Facebook, publishing the income declaration.

Safonov fired back at his critics with a denial, telling Russia's independent Dozhd TV that "if we are talking about my declarations then, yes, I really did own a villa and a house on the Seychelles Islands." However, he added, "I have sold them. I don't have them anymore."

Sobol appeared unconvinced, however, tweeting: "Where are the documents and evidence of the sale?"

And Safonov's ownership denial did little to clear the storm of sarcasm over his claim that the concept of beach holidays was "imposed" on Russia from the outside.

A popular Internet meme was soon born, joking that basic institutions and modern conveniences, too, were imposed on Russia by foreigners.

"The presence of a legal system is an imposed stereotype. Our ancestors, even the most affluent ones, resolved disputes with a duel or by lot," wrote the "justice minister" in a tweet posted by the satirical handle Fake Foreign Ministry.

Sergey Klochkovskiy, a Twitter user with a Ukrainian surname, joked about the electricity blackout in Russian-controlled Crimea.

"The presence of electricity is a stereotype that was forced on us. Our ancestors sat by candlelight en masse."

"Rosturizm proposes making Russian resorts all-year-round," joked the Rogozin in Orbit handle on Twitter.

Russian tourists have borne the brunt of the Kremlin's confrontational politics in the past year.

The first salvo came with the collapse of the Russian ruble in December 2014 that made flights abroad more expensive and drastically increased costs for Russians abroad.

Russia's two most popular beach destinations, Egypt and Turkey, have been ruled out entirely.

In November, the government banned flights to Egypt after a Russian passenger plane returning to St. Petersburg from Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resort was blown up over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 passengers on board. The attack was claimed by Islamic State militants.

The same month, package tours to Turkey were effectively banned when President Vladimir Putin banned charter flights to the NATO country after Ankara shot down a Russian bomber for violating its airspace.

Turkey had been a holiday destination for 4.5 million Russians a year, Safonov told Rossiiskaya Gazeta. But no bother -- Crimea could more than handle them, he said.

"The peninsula can take two times as many holidaymakers as it does now -- up to 10 million people a year," he said.

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