Ruble-Weighted Russians Discover the Glories of Travel

THE Russian tourist was carrying his passport, plane ticket, and about $30,000 spending money when he decided to enjoy a leisurely afternoon on the sandy beach in Dubai. After hours of sunbathing, he felt so sleepy he took a taxi back to his hotel -- and left his bulging briefcase on the back seat.

Returning to his hotel room, the tourist realized what he had done and panicked. ''He didn't remember the name of the taxi company,'' recalls his travel agent, Lydia Pavlova. ''So he called his wife to send him more money and spent the next two days at the Russian consulate getting a new passport.''

On the third day, there was a knock at his door. To his surprise, it was his taxi driver, returning his briefcase with his travel documents and money intact.

Not all Russians are this naive with their money. But Mrs. Pavlova says they're new at travel. ''In the past, Russians couldn't even afford to go abroad,'' she laughs.

Pavlova is the director of Intertour, one of the 2,000 new private travel agencies that have opened in Moscow since 1991. At that time, combining business with pleasure on ''shopping tours'' was the holiday of choice for Russians traveling abroad for the first time following the relaxation of Soviet-era restrictions on foreign travel.

But times are changing. Most Russians still shop till they drop while on vacation, but the nouveaux riches who have made quick money in the first fledgling years of Russia's open market are now beginning to choose destinations based on merits other than consumer ones.

Unlike their footloose Western counterparts, however, Russian pleasure travelers have yet to shed the Soviet herd instinct and usually prefer to travel in groups. Even the rare individual tourists usually plan their itineraries in advance.

''Most Russians are frightened to speak foreign languages,'' Pavlova says. Only a minority of her clients are ''well-educated enough to speak in a taxi and order by themselves in restaurants,'' she says.

In the past, Aeroflot charter flights returning from places like Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, regularly flew back to Moscow dangerously overloaded with electronic goods and appliances. Buses returning home from cheap shopping meccas such as Poland and Turkey were crammed so full that passengers often had to stand in the aisle during two-day journeys.

But for today's New Russians, to whom Mercedes and BMWs, lavish summer kottedges, and 10-room city apartments have become de rigueur, the most prestigious holidays now are the ones that are most comfortable -- and cost the most money.

''My tourists aren't interested in cheap tours. They want the ones that offer the best services and the best five-star hotels,'' Pavlova says.

At the Art-Tour agency, an all-inclusive nine-day tour to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean costs a mere $4,000. While the price may seem exorbitant, director Dmitri Artiunov says it's small change for his clients. ''It now costs the same to fly to the Emirates as it does to fly to Sochi, on the Russian coast,'' he explains from his agency, where glossy travel posters cover the walls.

In the good old days, Soviet enterprises supplied their employees with holiday vouchers to health spas in the Baltic republics or on the Black Sea, or dreary resorts in ''fraternal'' countries such as Bulgaria or Romania. But resort areas such as Abkhazia in the former Soviet republic of Georgia are torn by civil war, and even Ukraine's balmy Crimean Peninsula, once a Communist elite favorite, now requires a visa -- and money.

These days, wealthy Russians flock not only to the French and Italian Rivieras, Cyprus and Egypt, but also to exotic locales such as the Seychelles, Thailand, and the Maldives -- to which obtaining a visa is relatively easy.

But passport problems still exist. Dmitri Solovyov of the Roses of the Wind travel agency recently incurred the wrath of Russian authorities after several of his clients bought round-trip tickets to Australia and the United States -- and never returned.

''After that, many KGB officers came to our office and demanded an explanation,'' he says. ''We couldn't give them one.''

But for young people like Andrei Zhilayev, travel still means profit. On a recent afternoon he was preparing to go to Turkey, where he plans to buy leather jackets and Adidas running shoes to sell back home.

Mr. Zhilayev, who formerly traveled three times monthly to Poland, is the quintessential shopping tourist -- a profession that five years ago could have landed him in jail.

''Poland was cheaper, but now it's getting too dangerous. There are too many racketeers,'' he says, counting out a wad of dollars to pay for his ticket. ''It's safer in Turkey. Maybe I'll even see some of the country when I'm there.''

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