Tourists enjoy the sites in Jerusalem
Tourists enjoy the sites in Jerusalem Nati Shohat/Flash 90

(AFP) Tensions following Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter jet have shrunk the horizon for Russian tourists in search for sunnier climes, and for battered tour operators.  

Foreign travel had already been under a dark shadow from a weak economy and the severing of air ties with Egypt after the bombing of a passenger jet.  

Officials led by strongman Vladimir Putin warned Russians against travelling to Turkey and insisted the country was no safer than Egypt, where a Russian charter plane flying from the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg was downed by a bomb last month, killing all 224 people on board.

"Our citizens who are in Turkey could find themselves in danger," Putin said on Wednesday, speaking a day after accusing Turkey of betraying Russia and essentially backing the Islamic State group.

The warning could deliver a blow to the tourism industry in Turkey which was the second most popular destination for Russian tourists in the first half of the year.

Earlier this month, Russia halted all Russian flights to Egypt, a country some 2.6 million Russian tourists visited last year.  

After Moscow severed air links with Egypt, many tourists opted to go to Turkey instead but now tensions with Ankara could make sunny holidays all the more inaccessible to Russians, who benefit from a visa-free regime with the country.

"It's impossible to imagine the Russian tour sector without Turkey," said Irina Tyurina, the spokeswoman of the Russian Tourist Union, in comments carried by Interfax news agency.

Turkey and Egypt last year accounted for one third of all Russian tourism, with 3.3 million tourists visiting Turkey, according to Russia's federal tourism agency.

The country's tour operators union said nearly 5,000 tours to Turkey had already been sold, but the federal tourism agency on Tuesday banned the further sale of such tourist packages.

"The best alternative to Egypt is disappearing," Russia's tour operators union said in a statement.

"In Turkey, only the best five-star hotels with pools and spas are open. All other destinations are further away and too expensive."

Filling the void

After air ties with Egypt were cut, the majority of Russians who had purchased tours to the country had cancelled or postponed their trips instead of picking another destination.

Russian authorities have hurried to reassure tour operators the industry would not be left in disarray.

"The government has reserves in case we would need to provide financial support to tour operators or airlines," deputy finance minister Tatyana Nesterenko told TASS state news agency.  

With Russians staying away from Egypt, Israel has jumped in to fill the void, flaunting its beaches in advertisements broadcast on Russian television.  

Israeli officials recently visited Moscow to propose sponsoring flights to the resort town of Eilat, Russian media reported.

Russian tour operator TUI told AFP it had opened tour packages to Goa, India, a coveted destination to escape Russia's frigid winter, much like Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia.

Southeast Asia has become the most popular tourist destination for Siberians, the head of the Novosibirsk tourism association, Svetlana Fomenko, told the RIA Novosti state news agency.

But Asian destinations are proving too costly for holidaymakers from European Russia, who have seen their purchasing power shrink on the back of low oil prices and Western sanctions that have fueled inflation and sent the ruble into a downward spiral.

The collapse of the ruble last December had significantly hindered Russians' ability to travel abroad, with foreign tourism down 33.8 percent in the first half of the year.

The downward trend is all the more visible for destinations like Thailand and India, where the number of Russian tourists has more than halved in comparison to the same time last year.

The economic crisis and the patriotic wave that swept the country after Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 led many Russians to spend holidays on the Black Sea peninsula.

But Crimea is likely to lose much of its appeal after the peninsula was hit by power cuts after explosions on power lines last week.

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