PLAYA PUERTO CRUZ, Venezuela – They drank rum and danced to a boombox playing Russian electropop music in a rudimentary airport lounge. Singing “Not Enough,” they enjoyed the last hours of their tropical vacation.
These travelers could have been mistaken for spring break tourists. In reality, they were Russians waiting to board the last flights back to Moscow before sanctions cut off their return route, their future and that of their hosts disrupted by the invasion of Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin.
Russian tourists had helped breathe unlikely new life into the idyllic Venezuelan island of Margarita, once a Caribbean tourism hotspot and devastated in recent years by economic crisis, international isolation and the pandemic. Under an agreement approved by the two countries’ allied governments, more than 10,000 Russians have visited Margarita since September on direct charter flights from Moscow, which was the island’s only international connection.
The agreement gave jobs to hundreds of Margariteños in 20 hotels and forced the central government to improve the island’s electricity, water and gasoline supply. Rampant crime has been reduced; businesses have started to reopen; residents who had emigrated began to return.
The recent wave of Russian visitors was only a tiny fraction of the three million tourists Margarita welcomed each year at its peak in the early 2010s. But the arrival of the first international tours in years has given locals the hope of having changed the course of misfortune.
“We want to hug any foreigner who comes here,” said José Gregorio Rodríguez, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Venezuelan state of Nueva Esparta, an archipelago that includes Margarita. “When you’re at zero, any improvement is welcome.”
Russians were drawn to Margarita because of the low prices, the exoticism, because they didn’t apply for a visa or there were restrictions due to the pandemic, and because of the sun all the time. year, said tourists interviewed on the island in February and early March. . Trips could cost from $850 per person for 13 nights at a three-star, all-inclusive beach hotel and round-trip flights from Moscow, lasting 15 hours each.
“It’s something new, something exciting,” said Lucia Aleeva, a blogger from the city of Kazan. “In a sense, we are the first explorers.”
Some Russian tourists said they booked Margarita tickets a day or two before the trip without knowing anything about Venezuela, lured by the destination’s unusually low price. Most of those interviewed described themselves as small business owners or provincial officials, with many hailing from state capitals as far afield as Chita, a Siberian city near Mongolia. Some had never left Russia; most had never been to Latin America.
Many older tourists started their vacations in a stereotypical Russian way: drink a lot.
Algis, who works for a construction company and is from Sochi in southern Russia, was inebriated last month when he stepped off the plane in 32-degree heat wearing nappies of winter clothes. He carried a bag of liquor bottles purchased from a duty-free store in one hand and a wad full of assorted dollar bills in another, saying he intended to invest them in a possible wedding on the ‘Isle.
Another tourist named Andrey, who rents heavy machinery in the mining town of Chelyabinsk, said over dinner over copious bottles of cheap Chilean wine that a heavy drinking session that began in his hometown and lasted to the Moscow airport terminal and on the flight to Margarita, he was startled by a voice announcing over the plane’s loudspeaker that he had been selected to meet the Venezuelan minister of Tourism on landing as he was the 10,000th Russian tourist to visit the island.
Andrey said he struggled to stand up straight for the photo.
In Margarita’s sprawling resort town of Sunsol Ecoland, Russians danced into the wee hours at a beach club that alternated reggaeton with the Russian hits of bands like Leningrad, a crude ska band that idealized the exploits of the low life and abundant consumption of working-class losers. .
On visits to the colonial towns of Margarita during the day, many have marveled at the ability of Venezuelans to maintain good spirits despite daily economic hardship.
But then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and the war quickly spread to areas far removed from the battlefield.
As the fighting intensified, Western countries and companies closed their airspace to Russian flights and suspended the rental and supply of aircraft parts. In response, specialist Russia tour operator Pegas Touristik told customers sunbathing on Margarita they should evacuate.
Many began to wonder what difficulties now awaited them at home.
Inflation in Russia is soaring, fears of shortages and hoarding are growing, and the government is imposing currency controls and threatening foreign businesses, reminiscent of life during Venezuela’s eight-year economic depression, including the southeastern country. American just released.
“Fortunately, they have sea and sun,” said Yulia, a ministry employee in Moscow. “In a country like ours, surviving turmoil and poverty would be much more difficult and sad.”
Like other Russians interrogated at Margarita since the start of the war, Yulia asked not to use her surname. None of the Russian tourists The Times spoke to would comment on the invasion itself, or early reports of civilian casualties in Ukraine. They often blamed a bad internet connection for not being up to date with the news. The Russian government has made the mere mention of war an offense punishable by 15 years in prison.
Yulia spent her last days in Margarita on the beach reading the dystopian novel 1984by George Orwell.
As fighting and international sanctions against Russia escalated, the mood at the resorts grew increasingly bleak. The purchasing power of Russians fell with the ruble and their bank cards stopped working.
Sunsol’s Russian guests dined one last time on the island in silence. The usual noise of lively conversation, the bustle and clink of wine glasses in the hotel’s large buffet room was gone, giving way to the distant sound of the waves.
The beach club was empty. A group of Venezuelan artists danced alone on stage, trying in vain to cheer up the discouraged guests who contemplated their impending problems.
Russia’s currency has lost around 37% of its value since the start of the war, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens face unemployment as sanctions push businesses to close at a record pace.
A Russian association of tour operators claimed that international bookings fell by 70% in the week after the outbreak of war.
The mood of station personnel was equally gloomy.
The war has dealt a heavy blow to Margarita, who expected to receive 65,000 Russian visitors this year. Some businessmen have refurbished their unused hotels to accommodate expected visitors and hired new staff, hoping Russian flights will open the doors to more international tourists.
Salaries were paltry — waiters earned just a dollar a day — but the jobs at least provided stable meals in a country where hunger remains widespread. Since the war broke out, many people have already lost their jobs or had their shifts reduced.
Margarita’s last flight to Moscow departed on March 8. Since then, major Russian airlines have stopped flying west beyond neighboring Belarus.
Although Pegas continues to advertise trips to Margarita from April, owners of tourism businesses on the island say the route’s future is uncertain.
During the last days of their vacation, some guests said they trusted Putin, who led Russia for 22 years with the support of many Russians.
“We trust our president,” said a tourist from Moscow, also named Yulia. “I don’t think it will lead to collapse.” Her husband, Oleg, quietly intervened: “Well, it’s already collapsing.”
Others were trying to enjoy what they considered their last glimpse of the outside world.
“We decided to turn off, like it was the last time,” said Ravil, a designer from Moscow. “We don’t know if we will return to the same country we left.”
Ksenia Barakovskaya contributed reporting.
Anatoly Kurmanaev is a correspondent based in Mexico City from where he covers Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Before joining the Mexican correspondent in 2021, he spent eight years reporting from Caracas on Venezuela and the neighboring region. @akurmanaev