The World May Hate Putin but They Already Miss Russian Tourists
From Cuba to Cyprus, tourist destinations catering to wealthy Russians are already feeling the pinch.
ROME—March 1 was supposed to herald the return of wealthy Russian tourists to much of Europe. The lifting of travel restrictions for those coming from non-European Union countries and the acceptance of a negative COVID test instead of vaccines was a reason to celebrate for those Sputnik-vaxxed Russians whose jabs are not recognized in the EU.
But instead, it is a total wash since Russian airlines are now banned from Europe and Russian credit cards won’t work without access to the SWIFT network. Russians themselves have not been banned, especially the many millions who have residency or have acquired European citizenship through places like Malta, which has made a cottage industry out of selling passports to wealthy Russians before halting the practice on Wednesday. But they have no way to move, and won’t for the foreseeable future.
That spells economic trouble for many regions that have been a magnet for Russians for decades. They will be missed most on the island of Sardinia, where Vladimir Putin’s oligarch mates found a friendly atmosphere when Silvio Berlusconi—whose Sardinian villa is easily the most splendid on the island—was prime minister. Putin’s frequent sojourns on the island led to a real estate boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, when oligarchs scooped up vast swaths of buildable beach. And they brought with them their toys. Steel billionaire and honorary Sardinian citizen Alisher Usmanov’s Dilbar yacht— one of the most decadent in the world—has created its own business in Porto Cervo, where he commissioned a special pier that employs dozens of people year-round. Usmanov turned off the Dilbar’s transponder weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it was last spotted in the North Sea, surely not because of the weather. A port worker at Porto Cervo told The Daily Beast that the employees have been paid through May, but after that they will be out of work. Usmanov donated half a million euros to the region where he keeps his Sardinian villa to help make up for losses during the pandemic. It is unclear whether that investment—still being allocated— or his ties to the Fondazione Arte, Scienza e Sport Italia will be subject to sanctions.
Usmanov’s giant private jet, which has its own dedicated hangar in the local airport, is also missing. The jet is so big the tail is often spotted jutting from the structure. But it hasn’t been seen for months, locals say.
Russians will also be greatly missed at Forte Village, a lush beach resort on Sardinia’s Costa Esmeralda, which recently opened a private chess academy run by Russian chess legend Anatoly Karpov, who spends much of the Russian winters on the island. A spokesperson told The Daily Beast that all of their Russian guests have canceled, even those with European citizenship or residency. They generally lured the many Russians who live on and around Lake Como in the north during the spring months when the lake is still chilly. Russian state TV host Vladimir Soloviev complained about losing his two villas on the lake, which has so many Russian residents most of the restaurants offer Russian translations on their menus.
“We lost two seasons to COVID and now we will lose this season to war,” a Forte Village rep told The Daily Beast. The resort, which is owned by a conglomerate that includes two Chechen entrepreneurs, Musa and Mavlit Bazhev, has so far not been hit by sanctions, but the luxury hotel Palazzo Doglio in the heart of Cagliari owned by the same group is on Italy’s list. It is unclear if removing the Bazhev brothers from the ownership group will change their fate.
Malta, which is not exactly Sardinia, will also suffer the loss of Russians, many of whom invested heavily on the European island in exchange for European passports. Those documents will mean Russian dual nationals can hide out on the island, but at the present moment there is no valid way to get there.
Spain also finds itself in the middle of a conundrum. Three of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs have their yachts in dry dock in Barcelona’s MB92 shipyard, a sort of service station for superyachts. Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Israeli owner of Chelsea football club who was involved in the first day of peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, may be subject to sanctions, meaning his Solaris yacht may be impounded in Spain, according to the Guardian. Russia’s building magnate Andrey Molchanov’s Aurora and Lukoil chief Vagit Alekperov’s Galactica Super Nova are also in the shipyard. Spain has yet to announce what it will do with the big boats.
The city-state of Monaco, which is a haven for Russian investors, has also taken the painful decision to not just freeze but seize many Russian assets, including luxury cars and yachts left by Russians who own property or regularly visit the exclusive city.
Cuba has long been a safe haven for Russian tourists, and is also already feeling the crunch with many who had booked spring holidays now canceling, mostly due to Canada closing its airspace to Russian flights. Some people who are stuck in Cuba have had to resort to taking the long way home, crossing to Turkey, Egypt, UAE and Vietnam, which have not yet closed off air space to Russian carriers.
Some Russian diplomats—at least those who have not been expelled—have lashed out at tourist destinations, including the Russian ambassador to Cyprus, Stanislav Osadchiy, who told the Politis newspaper on the island that the travel bans will backfire. “Unfortunately, I think Europeans are shooting themselves in the foot. Where will they find natural gas, oil, wheat, how will Cyprus get Russian tourists?” he said. “Russian tourists will not come. Where will these tourists go? They’ll go to Turkey, you want that? They’ll spend money there. Summer is coming. You have shut down Cyprus’ airspace? You have shot yourselves in the foot.”
Even though Russians may not be traveling anywhere any time soon, some tourist entities can take advantage of those who got caught up in air travel closures due to sanctions. The Travel Agencies Association of Russia estimated on Tuesday that more than 27,000 Russian travelers are now stranded in the U.S. and Europe, including 200 holiday makers stuck on the Portuguese island of Madeira, who have mostly all extended their reservations into the spring and hundreds of Russian skiers now trapped in Bulgaria who will have to try to get home on a land route via Serbia and Turkey.
And the Maldives has suddenly become a safe haven for oligarch yachts, with as many as five moored or sailing towards the archipelago to try to avoid their big boats being seized in Europe and elsewhere. Reuters reports that Oleg Deripaska’s Clio was docked in Male Wednesday, and that Alexander Abromov’s Titan arrived a few days earlier. Both men are on the oligarch sanction list.
There are also hundreds of Russians stuck in Milan, many who came for a quick shopping weekend—it’s just over three hours direct between Milan and Moscow—who are not unable to make it back home with their treasures and now, thanks to a clampdown on their Russian bank cards, unlikely to enjoy their time abroad.