As President Donald Trump faced a backlash last week over
his handling of Russian president Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit, Russia
specialists reported that the current, not always flattering spotlight on
U.S.-Russia relations has not hindered U.S. travelers' desire to visit Russia.
"Russia has been getting a lot of attention -- good and
bad -- for the last year, and we think that did keep Russia on people's minds
and piqued people's interests to go and discover this complex destination for
themselves," said Annie Lucas, vice president of Seattle-based MIR Corp.,
a tour operator that specializes in Russia, Europe and Asia.
Lucas said MIR Corp.'s Russia bookings were up this year,
and that was on top of a strong 2017, which saw travel to Russia start to
significantly rebound following a drop in bookings during and after the Crimea
crisis of 2014 and 2015.
Intrepid Travel reported that its Russia bookings have
increased globally by over 30% this July compared to last year, "no doubt
due in large part to Russia's increased presence in the media between the World
Cup and the current relations between the U.S. and Russia," said Megan
Bailey, the company's director of sales for North America.
She noted that Intrepid saw a 22% increase in U.S. travelers
going to Russia in 2017 compared to 2016, following the spotlight on Russia
throughout the 2016 presidential election. "Our travelers are eager to
learn more about the countries they repeatedly hear about in the news and make
their own decisions about them," added Bailey.
While most of the media attention to Russia last week was
not favorable, the Trump-Putin meeting came just one day after Russia hosted
the finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, an event that did much more to bolster
Russia's image, especially when compared with the 2014 Winter Olympics in
"The World Cup definitely was seen as an overall
success in the end," Lucas said. "Sochi was mired in controversy over
so many things."
Alex Trettin of Travel Leaders in Tacoma, Wash., who books
travel for soccer fans, attended the World Cup in Russia and said that while he
had not seen any noticeable uptick in Russia travel, "Visiting Russia has
greatly opened my eyes to the ease of access and interesting sights in the
country. I will personally be more than eager to promote travel to Russia."
Scenic Luxury Tours & Cruises, which operates river
cruises on Russia's Volga River, said the success of the World Cup not only
helped to spur Russia bookings, it also increased interest in some of the other
countries that were playing in the tournament.
Joelle Davis, vice president of brand management, for Scenic
USA, said, "We've seen a positive uptake in the interest of Russia since
the start of the World Cup. However, being an international sporting event we've
noticed that in addition to increased interest in Russia, it has also built
excitement around participating countries, especially over the last couple of
weeks of the World Cup. Many companies, including us, utilized social media to
highlight cruises from countries such as France and Croatia, where we saw more
Viking Cruises, too, which got its start in Russia 21 years
ago, said that it is seeing robust interest in the country right now.
"Throughout 2018 we have seen strong demand for
itineraries that include Russia," said Viking senior vice president of
marketing Richard Marnell. For the 2018 season, Viking is operating four
204-passenger river cruise ships on its "Waterways of the Tsars"
itinerary between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The company is nearly 100% sold
out for the remainder of the season and many sailings in 2019 already have
limited availability, Marnell said.
David Fishman of Travel Leaders in Southfield, Mich., who
has booked numerous clients to Russia, said that since the U.S. didn't have a
team playing in the World Cup, he hadn't seen any significant increase in
people requesting Russia due the international soccer competition. But, he
said, Americans do appear to be fascinated by Russia and have a desire to go
and see the destination for themselves.
"It has always been because it seems exotic, has a
taboo feel, or because someone is tracing their roots," Fishman said. "People
are interested to know what is going on in Russia and how people live. People
are also interested in going back to their roots and seeing the countries that
they came from. And some clients potentially still have family there."