With Ruble’s Decline, Russian Tourists Gain Appreciation for the Motherland


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A tourist visits the ruins of a church in Vyatskoye, Russia.

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Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

VYATSKOYE, Russia — The tourists streamed out of the tall white bus onto an asphalt parking lot in the middle of this spruced-up village. Wearing sun hats and wielding cameras, they peered into the gardens of brightly painted houses and listened to a tour guide talk about enterprising peasants.

They were Russians vacationing in Russia, a sight that has become ever more common since a fall in the ruble that started late last year put foreign vacations out of reach of many in the middle class.

And while that may be causing a tinge of regret among Russian vacationers as the season wanes, on this bus, in this town, the tourists were taking it in stride.

“Paris is O.K., but there’s no place better than home,” said Olga Korovina, 53, a businesswoman from nearby Yaroslavl with a camera around her neck who was taking photographs of her friends in front of a restored 19th-century cabin. She scrapped plans to drive through Europe this summer after the ruble’s fall made it too expensive.

One of the most profound changes in the lives of Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union has been the ability to travel abroad. The shift opened up a closed society, and as soon as they could afford it, Russians went. Foreign air travel rose exponentially, and members of the expanding middle class filled beaches in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Thailand on package tours that became a symbol of newfound affluence.

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In Vyatskoye, Russia, museums feature restored houses from the 19th century.

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Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But last year, a tectonic shift occurred. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent divorce from the West, officials in Russian security services were encouraged not to travel abroad.

By summer, rank-and-file workers of state-owned companies began vacationing in Russia in order to avoid annoying their bosses, whom politics — and in some cases economic sanctions — prevented from traveling abroad, said Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia.

By the end of the year, the ruble had slid to a historic low against the dollar, and the suggestion that the security service workers not travel abroad had turned into a ban that Ms. Lomidze estimated affected about 4 million people, including family members.

The currency’s loss has been the domestic tour industry’s gain. Early estimates indicate sales of domestic tours are up by nearly 20 percent this year, Ms. Lomidze said, while foreign tours are down sharply. Sales to Thailand are down by about half, and those to Greece are down by a third.

For Russians, vacationing in Russia has another benefit: It is good for their country. Russia is awash in patriotism, stirred up by the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, and vacations are not immune from the fervor.

The state tourism agency has trumpeted the rising numbers as evidence of Russians’ love for the motherland. In July, the Kremlin weighed delaying the start of the school year so people could vacation longer.

And this month, Mr. Putin held a government meeting on domestic tourism in Yalta, a town in Crimea, the Black Sea Peninsula that Russia annexed last year. In Sochi, a resort on the Black Sea that has experienced the largest surge of visitors, the Russian anthem is played through loudspeakers on the beach every day. Videos show people in bathing suits getting to their feet out of respect.

Vyatskoye — a village of restored houses from the 19th century about 165 miles north of Moscow — takes a subtler approach.

The museum’s benefactors, an affluent couple from Yaroslavl, restored a house for themselves in Vyatskoye some years back and decided to keep going.

There are now 10 museums, including one on the theme of Russian entrepreneurialism featuring elaborate window frames, musical instruments and old bricks. There are restored banyas (Russian saunas), wells with water whose purity has not changed — its proprietors say — since it was first tested at the turn of the century and a bright green house set up to look like a home from the 19th century, when the village was populated by artisans who were experts in, among other things, roofing and sculpture.

“It allows you to look a little differently at yourself and your country,” said Oleg Zharov, the complex’s benefactor, a mathematician in Soviet times who said he made his money in purification systems for the oil industry and in real estate.

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Evening in Vyatskoye.

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Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Visitors have voted with their feet. More than 80,000 visited the complex last year, Mr. Zharov said, enough to have it pay for itself for the first time in the five years since it opened. He does not expect ever to make up the $20 million investment.

The museum complex includes a hotel and a restaurant, where the walls are dotted with turn-of-the-century clocks. (In a nod to the patriotic mood, some salads are named after religious and political leaders, including Nikolai Patrushev, the current secretary of the Russian Security Council. Its main ingredients are cherry tomatoes, pieces of beef and olives.)

Pavel Yegorov and his wife, Elena Yegorova, were sipping beer outside the restaurant on a recent Tuesday after visiting four of the museums. They had left their Moscow apartment before dawn to reach Vyatskoye in time for lunch, their first stop in a week of travel around the Golden Ring, a series of picturesque towns and cities in western Russia known for onion-domed churches and fortresses.

Last year, they traveled by train through France and Switzerland. They loved it, but they could not afford anything like that this year.

“Russia is cheaper!” said Mr. Yegorov, grinning, when asked why they had come.

There were downsides. At breakfast, the only coffee was instant. The Internet did not work in the hotel (though they did not need it anyway). The museums did not open until 11 a.m., so they had to wait for two hours after breakfast.

Still, they were happy.

“This is ours, our native land,” he said, reclining in a large plastic chair. “Look, they gave me a pickle with my beer. In Geneva, they wouldn’t have done that.”

The museums were already open when the modern white tour bus arrived from Yaroslavl, and the visitors pored over their contents. There was a big book of confessions from the local church, old kitchen utensils and musical instruments, even an old-fashioned dental drill.

“Joy isn’t the word,” said Olga Alexandrovna, a retired accountant who was writing effusive comments in the guest book. “It’s spirituality. To see what we were. To see what we were able to do.”

Ms. Korovina, the businesswoman, said learning about the past satisfied a craving she and her friends were experiencing as Russians.

“Now Russians have really started to rise from their knees,” she said. “You feel really proud, like you can spread your wings and your heart beats stronger.”



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