ANTIGUA, Guatemala – As the tourism sector recovers from last year’s freefall, industry leaders from Guatemala to Panama are starting to look beyond the slumping Western economies that caused the crisis and market themselves to Russia in an attempt to tap a new source of wealthy tourists.
And judging by the record turnout of Russian tour operators at this week’s Central America Travel Market (CATM) in Guatemala, the budding interest is mutual.
“Central America is an interesting and unknown market for Russian tourists,” said Evgeny Zhukov, director of Avisenta Travel Company in Saint Petersburg, Russia. “I have clients who have already seen many other parts of the world and they want to open new horizons.”
Zhukov, one of eight Russian tour operators to participate in CATM this year, says Russia, with a population of 142 million, has a large market of wealthy people who like to travel.
While Russian tourists typically visit countries along the Mediterranean, Zhukov said there is a new interest in unexplored destinations on the other side of the world. And he thinks that Central America, with its Maya culture, sunshine and white-sand beaches, could become an interesting destination to sell to his high-end clientele.
“I have clients who are cultured, well-read and want to see the world with their own eyes,” Zhukov told The Nica Times, speaking Spanish fluently. “These are people with lots of money; they are the privileged class, not the middle class. And it’s a big market.”
Big as it may be, it’s still a market that is relatively uninformed about Central America and its tourism offering, according to Zhukov and others. In fact, the number of Russian tourists who visited Central America in 2009 was so statistically insignificant that Russia wasn’t included in the Office of Central American Tourism Integration (SITCA) registry of the nationalities of the region’s visitors.
In other words, Russia didn’t even make the top 40 list of tourist markets for Central America. So the sudden mutual interest between Russia and Central America is only now getting to the first-kiss stage of the relationship.
“The demand for Central America doesn’t exist yet. We are here investigating what the region has to offer so we can promote it back in Russia and create the demand,” said Russian journalist Anatoly Kovaley, speaking through an interpreter. “But I think this region has great potential and a great future.”
Plus, Kovaley added, the new tourism push is consistent with the Russian government’s keen interest in strengthening economic and political ties with Latin America – as evidenced by Russia’s announcement last week to invest in a $1.6 billion nuclear power plant in Venezuela.
Russia has also pledged generous aid to like-minded Nicaragua – the Kremlin’s closest Central American ally during the Cold War.
During a Russian delegation’s visit to Managua last June, Deputy Foreign Minister Serguei Ryabkov promised a $10 million aid package in the areas of transportation, budget assistance, technical support, energy, health and education. The Russian envoy also promised to reconnect a twice-weekly commercial flight from Moscow to Managua via Cuba (NT, June 11).
The Sandinista government is taking advantage of the budding political friendship to promote Nicaragua actively as a tropical tourist destination for Russians seeking to escape their cold winters.
Earlier this year, the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) participated for the first time in the Moscow International Travel & Tourism Exhibition and is considering hiring a permanent public relations and travel agency in Russia, according to Julio Videa, director of marketing and promotion for INTUR.
Videa said that INTUR is getting lots of requests from Russian journalists and investors who want to visit Nicaragua to learn about its tourism offering, especially for sport fishing.
Russia’s class of super-rich billionaires may also be eyeing investment opportunities in Nicaragua and the region. The Nica Times learned that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, worth an estimated $11.2 billion, visited Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama earlier this year aboard his famous yacht.
Videa said INTUR is also working the nostalgia angle by promoting Nicaragua and Cuba as a multi-destination vacation for Russians of a certain political persuasion.
“Right now we are in the phase of looking for new alliances and contacts in Russia,” Videa told The Nica Times. “But there is interest and there are conditions in Nicaragua for Russian tourism and investment. In the 1980s, hundreds of Nicaraguan students went to Russia and learned to speak Russian, so we have the personnel.”
Nicaragua is not the only country competing for Russia’s affection. Delegates from the Panamanian government have reportedly trekked to Moscow on four occasions in the past year to court Russian investment. And El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are also hoping to catch Russia’s eye.
In rolling out the red carpet for the Russians, every Central American country except for Costa Rica has lifted its tourism-visa requirements for Russians.
El Salvador’s tourism ministry is developing promotional information packets in Russian with the intent of participating in Moscow tourism trade shows next year. Tourism Minister Napoleón Duarte said he recently hosted a group of 20 Russians interested in El Salvador’s tourism market.
Plus, he said, with the recent addition of new direct flights to Central America from Madrid on Iberia Airlines, it is easier than ever for Russians to get here. Duarte said he’s also in talks with Russian airlines about possibly bringing new flights on Russian carriers to El Salvador.
The minister said Russia represents an emerging market with great potential to diversify El Salvador’s tourism industry and generate some serious income over the next few years.
“The economic profile of the Russians is very high and they spend much more than a typical tourist,” Duarte told The Nica Times. “And they would force us to improve our quality of service, because Russians are demanding.”
Honduras, with its island beaches and rich Maya culture, is also attracting some curiosity from Russia, according to Honduran Tourism Minister Nelly Jerez.
“We are looking for ways to strengthen ties between tour operators from Russia and Honduras. I think it’s a good time to promote this because Russians are traveling a lot and economically they are doing much better,” Jerez told The Nica Times. “Not only are the Russians interested in our sun and beaches but they’re also showing interest in our culture and folklore.”
So while it may still be a little premature for local eateries to start translating their menus into Russian, it might not be too long before the Russian invasion starts to take shape.