PLAYA PUERTO CRUZ, Venezuela — They drank rum and danced to a boombox blasting Russian electro-pop music in a cluttered airport waiting room. Singing ‘It’s Not Enough’, they enjoyed the last hours of their tropical vacation.
The travelers might have been mistaken for those who are on spring break. In fact, it was Russians waiting to board the last flights back to Moscow before sanctions cut their route home — their future and that of their hosts who were being ruined by President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. violated.
Russian tourists had helped breathe an unlikely new life into Venezuela’s idyllic island of Margarita, once a Caribbean tourist mecca that has been ravaged in recent years by the economic crisis, international isolation and the pandemic. Under a deal approved by the allied governments of the two countries, more than 10,000 Russians have visited Margarita since September on charter flights directly from Moscow, in what was the island’s only international connection.
The deal gave jobs to hundreds of Margarita residents in 20 hotels and forced the central government to improve the island’s chaotic supply of electricity, water and gasoline. Endemic crime was hot on its heels; businesses began to reopen; residents who had emigrated began to return.
The recent surge of Russian visitors represented a small fraction of the three million tourists Margarita received annually at its peak in the early 2010s. But the arrival of the first organized international tours in years gave locals hope that they had turned the tide on the misfortune.
“We want to embrace every foreigner who comes here,” said José Gregorio Rodríguez, the head of the Chamber of Commerce in the archipelago state of Nueva Esparta, which also includes Margarita. “When you’re at zero, any improvement is welcome.”
Russians were drawn to Margarita by cheap prices, exoticism, a lack of visa or pandemic restrictions and the years of sunshine, said tourists interviewed on the island in February and early March. Tours started at $850 per person for 13 nights in an all-inclusive 3-star beachfront hotel, including round-trip flights from Moscow, 15 hours one way.
“It’s something new, something exciting,” said Lucia Aleeva, a blogger from Kazan city. “In a sense, we’re the first explorers.”
Some Russian tourists said they booked the tickets to Margarita just a day or two before the trip without knowing anything about Venezuela, attracted by the destination’s unusually low price. Most of those interviewed described themselves as small business owners or provincial officials, and many came from state capitals as far away as Chita, a Siberian town near Mongolia. Some had never been outside of Russia; most had never been to Latin America.
Many of the older tourists started their vacation in a stereotypical Russian way: with heavy drinking.
Last month, Algis, who works for a construction company in Sochi, southern Russia, was drunk when he got off the plane wearing several layers of winter clothes in a 90-degree heat. In one hand he held a bag of duty-free alcohol and in the other a crumbled packet of dollar bills, announcing that he intended to invest them in a future marriage on the island.
Another tourist named Andrey, who rents out heavy equipment in the mining town of Chelyabinsk, told a dinner loaded with copious bottles of cheap Chilean wine how he was forced to flee during a heavy drinking session that started in his hometown and into the Moscow airport terminal and flight. transported, to Margarita, he was startled by a voice announcing through the loudspeaker of the plane that he had been selected to meet the Venezuelan Minister of Tourism on landing, because he was the 10,000th Russian tourist to visit the island.
Andrey said he was having a hard time getting right in front of the photo.
In the sprawling Margarita resort of Sunsol Ecoland, Russians danced into the wee hours at a beach disco, alternating reggaeton with Russian hits from bands like Leningrad, a foul-mouthed ska act that romanticized the hard-living and hard-drinking exploits of the work. class underdogs.
During their daytime visits to the colonial towns of Margarita, many marveled at the Venezuelans’ ability to maintain a good mood despite the daily economic hardship.
But then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and the war quickly reverberated in regions far from the battlefield.
As the fighting escalated, Western countries and companies closed their airspace to Russian flights and stopped leasing contracts and deliveries of aviation parts. In response, Russia-focused tour operator Pegas Touristik told customers enjoying the sun on Margarita to evacuate.
Many began to wonder what trials they would now face at home.
Inflation in Russia is rising; the fear of shortages and hoarding increases; and the government enforces currency controls and threatens foreign companies, echoing life during Venezuela’s eight-year economic depression from which the South American country is just emerging.
“Fortunately, they have the sea and the sun,” said Yulia, an employee of the ministry from Moscow. “In a country like ours, it would be much harder and sadder to survive unrest and poverty.”
Like other Russians who have been interviewed about Margarita since the beginning of the war, Yulia asked not to use her last name. None of the Russian tourists The Times spoke to would say anything about the invasion itself, or about the first reports of civilian casualties in Ukraine. Often they blamed a poor internet connection for not keeping up with the news. The Russian government has even made mentioning war a criminal offence, carrying up to 15 years in prison.
Yulia spent her last days in Margarita on the Beach reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘1984’.
As the fighting and international sanctions against Russia intensified, the mood in the resorts became increasingly bleak. The purchasing power of the Russians plummeted with the ruble and their bank cards no longer worked.
Sunsol’s Russian guests ate their last dinner on the island in silence. The usual sound of lively conversation and the shuffling and clanking of wine glasses in the hotel’s main buffet room had disappeared, giving way to the distant sound of the rolling waves.
The beach disco was empty. A group of Venezuelan performers danced alone on stage, unsuccessfully trying to cheer up the gloomy guests who pondered their impending troubles.
The Russian currency has lost about 37 percent of its value since the start of the war and hundreds of thousands of its citizens face unemployment as sanctions shut down businesses at a record pace.
A Russian association of tour operators said international bookings fell by 70 percent in the week after the war broke out.
The mood among the resort staff was equally grim.
The war dealt a major blow to Margarita, who is expected to receive 65,000 Russian visitors this year. Some businessmen renovated their inactive hotels to accommodate expected visitors and hired new staff, hoping that Russian flights would open doors for other international tourists.
Salaries were meager — waiters made just $1 a day — but the jobs at least provided regular meals in a country where hunger is rampant. Since the outbreak of the war, many people have lost their jobs or have cut their services.
Margarita’s last flight to Moscow departed on March 8. All major Russian airlines have since stopped flying west beyond neighboring Belarus.
Although Pegas continues to advertise Margarita tours starting in April, those who have tourism businesses on the island say the route’s future is uncertain.
During the last days of their vacation, some guests said they had faith in Mr Putin, who ruled Russia for 22 years with the support of many Russians.
“We trust our president,” said a tourist from Moscow, also known as Yulia. “I don’t think we’re going to collapse.” Her husband Oleg quietly intervened: “Well, it has already collapsed.”
Others tried to enjoy the rest of what they saw as their last look at the outside world.
“We’ve decided to relax, like it’s the last time,” says Ravil, a Moscow designer. “We do not understand whether we will return to the same country from which we departed.”
Ksenia Barakovskaya reported.