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Ready or not How the coronavirus pandemic closed borders and made Russia a ‘big country’ for domestic tourism

Source: Meduza
Nikolay Malyshev / TASS

One year ago, in March 2020, countries around the world began closing their borders. Russia did so on March 18. In terms of the number of people crossing state borders to vacation and sightsee, year one of the COVID-19 pandemic saw world travel reduced to levels last seen in the late 1980s. And Russia has experienced a lot of domestic changes too. With the help of aerospace columnist Anastasia Dagaeva, Meduza’s “Ideas” section editor Maxim Trudolyubov studied the current degree of movement around the world and found that the coronavirus pandemic put Russian society in an unfamiliar position — one of insularity typical of the “big countries” for domestic tourism, like the United States and China. That said, in terms of infrastructure and its political system, Russia wasn’t ready for this development.

This article was originally published in Russian on March 15 and has been abridged for length and clarity. 

Freedom of movement across state borders expanded throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Almost all the political and economic changes of the post-war decades were beneficial in this regard: the emergence of a middle class, the assertion of the right to rest, the development of technologies for mass air transportation, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the political and economic rapprochement between states.

The biggest collapse in post-war history

Prior to the pandemic, the number of travelers around the world had grown almost continuously for at least 70 years. The total number of air passengers in the world increased from 50 million in 1950 to 4.5 billion in 2019. While in 1950 there were 25 million international tourists, in 2019 there were 1.5 billion. 

At the same time, there were many obstacles to mass movement, especially flights: the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the Gulf War from 1990–1991, the 1997–1998 financial crisis, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, the SARS epidemic from 2002–2004, and the global financial crisis in 2008–2009. All of these events affected the movement of people, but they can’t compare to the collapse seen in 2020.

In April 2020, regular international passenger flights effectively ground to a halt — with the exception of export flights. According to data from the UN World Tourism Organization, the number of “arrivals” of international tourists fell 74 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. And the total number of air passengers around the world in 2020 decreased by 60 percent compared to the year before, falling to 1.8 billion people, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). 

In turn, the business data platform Statista calculated that the number of international flights today is roughly the same as in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, this isn’t due to the restoration of the Iron Curtain or the reintroduction of exit visas — instead, the price of flights has gone up, border controls have become stricter, and people who typically travel have become more dependent on government measures (in other words, they’re basing their decision to go abroad on sanitary and epidemiological conditions). Indeed, a “vaccine passport” may become the new passport, and countries’ openness to each other will be determined by the share of their populations immunized against COVID-19. And in this regard, Russia is still far behind many developed countries — despite its leading role in the development of an effective vaccine.

A flight board at the Zhukovsky International Airport. August 2020.
Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

From outside to inside

At the same time, the number of domestic flights didn’t decrease as sharply as international ones — they fell by 50 percent, as opposed to 74 percent. As a result, the ratio of international and domestic flights shifted. While in 2019, according to ICAO statistics, 41 percent of flights were international and 59 percent were domestic, last year’s results were 27 percent and 73 percent, respectively.

The United States and China — the countries with the highest passenger traffic in the world — tended more toward domestic travel in pre-covid times. During the 2020 pandemic, both countries saw a further reduction in international flights, but retained a significant share of their domestic flights. China, which was second to the United States in terms of air traffic for 15 consecutive years, rose to first place. And it’s set to maintain this leading position for at least the duration of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, flights made by Chinese and American residents were, on average, 15 percent international and 85 percent domestic.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, passenger traffic in the United States has decreased by 60 percent overall, to 369 million people, 335 million of whom flew within the country. In other words, in terms of global travel, the United States has gone back to the mid-1980s. China saw less of a roll back: traffic fell 37 percent to 418 million passengers, 408 million of whom took domestic flights. 

The pandemic has forced people in large countries to decrease the amount of time and money they’re spending abroad. Restrictions on international travel have led more people to travel actively within their own countries. For well-known tourist destinations that have long been overrun with traffic, this comes a great relief. The authorities in Venice, for example, were preparing to introduce a tax on visiting the city shortly before the coronavirus outbreak, but have postponed this measure until 2022.

Last June, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky said in an interview that international travel is unlikely to recover after the coronavirus pandemic. In all likelihood, the share of “mass tourism” — that is, trips to major tourist centers like Rome and London — will not return to pre-covid levels. Based on current patterns, however, Chesky’s feeling is that the share of domestic tourism will continue to grow. Moreover, he predicted that people will be making shorter trips, to destinations like nearby small towns or national parks, and that travel will become “more intimate.”

The unfamiliar insularity of a ‘big country’

The situation with international and domestic flights in Russia has changed even more radically than in the U.S. and China. Total passenger traffic nearly halved (to 69 million people), but domestic traffic only fell by 22 percent, which is much less than in China (30 percent) and the U.S. (59 percent). What’s more, the Russian domestic market turned out to be the only one in the world where in the summer months of 2020 the number of passengers transported was greater than in 2019, notes the International Air Transport Association. Having lost the opportunity to travel abroad, Russians have turned increasingly to travelling within their own country.

Prior to last year, Russia’s ratio of international to domestic flights was comparable to a small state — despite the fact that it’s the biggest country in the world (and could potentially be a massive aviation market). In 2013, international flights accounted for more than half of Russia’s traffic — and the balance of domestic flights leveled off only in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine. Since then — and up until 2020 — the ratio of foreign to domestic flights has been 40 percent to 60 percent. The pandemic completed what the war in Donbas and Russia’s subsequent political isolation began: Russia obtained the indicators of “big country” — international traffic fell to 18 percent and domestic trips rose to 82 percent.

If for American and Chinese societies this insularity is a familiar state — at least from the point of view of movement within and outside of the country — for the mobile part of Russian society it is not. For these Russians, the possibility of travel abroad is an important measure of individual freedom. But there are also opportunities for the realization of individual freedom inside the country. 

In fact, in “big countries” — the ranks of which Russia has now joined in terms of its population’s movement — there are no fewer such possibilities than abroad. Moreover, due to the lack of borders, they are, as a rule, more accessible. Historical monuments, the hometowns of cultural heroes, national parks, small towns with unique local cultures, places where a traveler has roots — these are just some of the many opportunities for meaningful travel experiences within a “big country.” 

The Manpupuner rock formations in Russia’s Komi Republic
Snow toy / Shutterstock

De-politicizing borders for the sake of development

Even before the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of Russians (more than 70 percent) never left Russia at all — mainly for economic reasons. However, the country is now faced with a different question: will Russia’s active travelers — those who kept domestic traffic from dropping radically in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic — stay within their own country for a long time? 

There are two factors that could prevent this from happening after the pandemic ends.

Firstly, voluntary insularity is fundamentally different from forced isolation. In Russia, the cultural memory of closed borders is still strong. For many of those who remember the Iron Curtain and the complete impossibility of seeing other countries with one’s own eyes, movement across borders, especially by plane, is one of the most important measures of freedom. From this point of view, the idea of a “return to the 1980s” sounds like a reminder of a loss of connection with the world.

Secondly, the Russian border remains overly politicized. Opposition figures leaving and entering the country, the “suspicious” activities for foreigners inside the country, the “containment of Russia” from abroad — these are all topics that Russian state media never tire of commenting on. In Russia, espionage trials are reported on widely and those who have lived or worked abroad are banned from taking up positions in the civil service. And the law on “foreign agents” symbolically expels those who weren’t planning to leave the country or didn’t attach existential importance to foreign travel.

That said, the authorities have no interest in closing Russia’s border forever. Its current status is much more suited to the regime’s political objectives.

But for a country whose leadership is turning border crossings into an unsafe, symbolic act — and, at the same time, not taking more decisive steps — Russia’s infrastructure for domestic flights and tourism is extremely underdeveloped. Plans to create centers that are attractive for domestic travel are hampered by the lack of airports, airfields, roads, and hotels. And developing meaningful movement within the country needs more than just good investment, it also requires a good psychological climate. 

Taking trips around the country will become more a desirable and exciting option if the border isn’t politicized and the decision to cross it remains a matter of personal choice and nothing more.

The current statistical “return to the 1980s” should be taken as a reminder not of the days behind Iron Curtain, but of the fact that the USSR had much more extensive infrastructure for domestic travel than present-day Russia does. The pandemic is a temporary shock, which won’t be able to change the situation on a deep level, but it can provide an impetus for domestic development and the creation of opportunities for the realization of individual freedom within the country.

Text by Anastasia Dagaeva and Maxim Trudolyubov

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart

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