2014 was the year in which I was supposed to be in St. Petersburg for the White Nights Festival. Instead of standing by the waterfront watching the evening’s fireworks in Russia’s finest city, I was at the bar in my UK workplace explaining why I hadn’t – and would not be – going anywhere for the immediate future (at least). Yes, a scenario that played out repeatedly across the course of 2014.
My loss was small potatoes though, compared to the hardship suffered by residents of Kiev and Donetsk as their home turf was turned firstly into a civilian and then military battleground. Not forgetting those in Crimea too, of course. By comparison, I really can’t complain. A butterfly had indeed flapped its wings: this time in Ukraine, causing not only a hurricane there but ensuring that the far reaching effects of the storm’s tendrils were felt all across the globe.
Now it’s early 2015 and Russia Experience’s Odette Fussey is on the other end of the phone. We’ve finally caught up. No mean feat in itself after her hectic schedule fielding the Ukraine fallout, Trans-Siberian travel customers and the demands of the Christmas period. I ask the obvious question, the elephant in the room: “How have the events of the past year impacted the business?”.
“2014 started most buoyant,” she tells me “but Ukraine saw a drop in enquiries and bookings”. The mentality suddenly switched en mass to “put it on hold for next year”, with “next year” being ‘better’ of course. Well, that’s the theory. She reveals that the drop-off really started to bite when the “tit-for-tat” of sanctions and petulant responses came into play. Things escalated of course, giving us the sudden implication that we are in this for the long haul.
Odette provides a striking example of Russian ‘tat’ that impacts Western tourism directly: “Every UK tourist now has to go in person to the Russian Embassy as part of their visa application”. That’s remarkable. Previously all the dealings with the Embassy were fielded by Odette and crew. They took the brunt of the formalities – reduced to mere procedure, and your documentation miraculously fell from the sky into your lap. Not any more.
I have to ask why? What’s the official ‘justification’ for this? “It’s anti-terrorism,” she explains, with (I presume) a straight-face, “though it doesn’t apply to European or North American travellers”. Do you know any English tourists eager to blow up the Kremlin? Words fail.
It doesn’t bode well: “They introduce these rules,” she continues “and tend not to remove them later – in order to not lose face, even if it impacts their own country.”
Welcome to Russian psychology 101. ‘Face’ is a big, big deal over there; they tend to go in hard and not back down. To this, add the following facts: former premier Gorbachev’s concerns voiced in Der Spiegel that “the world is at risk of a nuclear war because of the tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine”. Putin himself (non-too cryptically) also expressed an opinion that Russia should not be provoked (over Ukraine) as it is still a nuclear power. The combination of all of the above makes for a worrying scenario. Gorbachev’s other vision is of a new Cold War taking hold – hardly appealing but still preferable to instantaneous vaporisation.
And here we sit, talking about travel plans. Trips across Siberia: get ’em while they’re not radioactive.
There are some pluses though, Odette reveals; quite considerable ones – even in spite of the above doom-laden scenario. More next time.
[Photo by fmfm166]