Pink ladies

A Red Army of tourists is taking over the airbeds of Europe, and Cyprus has become their hot spot. By Simon Calder. Photographs by Jeremy Nicholl
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Indy Lifestyle Online
By midnight, the Russians are smashing glasses by the dozen - the vessels not hurled drunkenly into a fireplace, as tradition would demand, but toppling from precarious stacks balanced competitively on their heads. From a pair of industrial-sized speakers, the Gipsy Kings are yelling "companero" as a frenzy of flashing Minoltas captures the inevitable moment of collapse. Waiters, hastily recruited, cavort with murderously curved blades. Welcome to "Cypriot Night" and the new Russian tourism.

Russians have a long way to go before they acquire the lager-fuelled chauvinism of Western holidaymakers. In the beachside restaurant in Ayia Napa, southeast Cyprus, the revelry is good-natured and doused with an almost tangible sense of relief, even of liberation. The Kremlin has stopped giving orders, and a lifetime of touristic serfdom has ended. These Russians with pink and peeling faces can now get raucously drunk anywhere in the world. The right to a passport, and the freedom it confers, is for many the most cherished consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"These days we have more problems going to Ukraine and Latvia than we do coming here," says Lena Dzherlali, who is in Cyprus with her husband and child. They paid six million roubles (roughly, pounds 850) for the trip. "It's cheaper to be here than in Sochi or Yalta, and the facilities are much better - there's a swimming pool for the child. Next year we'll go to Spain or France."

Given half a chance, Russians are consummate travellers. Before the October Revolution in 1917, the bourgoisie wintered in Nice and San Remo. Each town still has an elegant Russian Orthodox cathedral, whose gilded onion domes poke through the palm trees like St Basil's-on-Sea. But worship now is strictly of the solar kind, and there are few limits to how far Russians will go in search of sun.

The crucial role of tourism in sparking the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has rarely been acknowledged. In the summer of 1989, a roaring trade in Trabants sprang up in the Hungarian border town of Sopron. In May that year, the Hungarian authorities quietly let it be known that they would no longer enforce the frontier with Austria. East Germans used their freedom to visit "fraternal socialist countries" and took a one- way vacation to Hungary. Abandoning their cars, they walked through the gap in the Iron Curtain into the world of hard currency.

Until then, state communism had guaranteed everyone a holiday. The real difficulty was in keeping up with the Rutskois. Yalta and Sochi were passe, a cruise on the Volga or a trip to a socialist country such as Bulgaria only for the well-connected, and the highest aspiration was a fortnight in Cuba, the Caribbean's only communist country. Five years ago, Aeroflot had 20 flights a week between the Russian capital and Havana. Now the flight path leads straight to the Med.

The learning curve has been steep. Many of those who took advantage of the freedom to travel are using tourism as a flimsy veil for trade. In the Gulf state of Dubai, it is assumed that anyone even vaguely pale of skin will be a Russian in search of import/export opportunities. Amateur entrepreneurs in Istanbul can shop till they've dropped all their dollars. Their bright and beautiful acquisitions are loaded on to a container and shipped back to Moscow. On the appointed day, all the erstwhile "holidaymakers" turn up at the collection point and take their hauls off for sale in a multiplicity of kiosks. Old financial habits die hard: Turkish traders still talk of "paying the Russian way", and this means unrolling a wad of $100 bills thicker than War and Peace.

Yet, increasingly, many travel-starved Russians are insisting on a holiday uncluttered by commercial concerns. Whether choosing a pack of cigarettes, a carpet or a holiday, "foreign" has long equalled "good" in the Russian view of the world. You can hardly walk down a street in Moscow without tripping over a Mexican restaurant, while, at the opposite end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, diners devour crocburgers and Castlemaine XXXX at the Captain Cook Australian restaurant. Released from the tyranny of state-sponsored tourism, the Russians are seeing the world with evangelical zeal.

Which is why, nursing hangovers at dawn, half-a-dozen Russians gather beneath a freshly-painted yellow sign reading spies. Nothing to do with the KGB, Spies is a Scandinavian holiday company. The agenda is the same as for any any other group of holidaymakers: to join an excursion, to rent a car and explore the island, or to stay on the beach and build sandcastles. Whatever the choice, the Russians are ready to spend.

In June, Russia and Cyprus signed a pact abolishing visa controls. The Russians have been granted disproportionate significance given that only 60,000 visited last year - outnumbered 16 to one by Britons. A stretch of Beach Road in Limassol has been nicknamed Russki Prospekt by the locals. Cyrillic script invites Russians to book a sightseeing trip to Israel and Egypt, try on a fur coat, enjoy a beef Stroganoff, or buy souvenirs. Loizos Kindynis, behind the counter of a bureau de change, says they change more than $1,000 at a time: "We've never seen such business here before." Though not everyone is grateful. "Ninety per cent of them don't buy anything," says Penny Giriakou at the Bottom of the Sea gift shop. "They just don't seem to have any money."

Perhaps each is dealing with different kinds of Russians. There are two communities in Cyprus: the floating population who fly in from Moscow to drift around on their airbeds for a fortnight, and those permanent residents who subscribe to Russian-language magazines such as Offshoreni Mir (Offshore World), published in Limassol for a clientele that prefers to keep its funds secret.

No one knows how much Russian wealth has been spirited out of the country since communism collapsed, but a substantial amount has been salted away in Cyprus. "Greek Nick", as he wishes to be known, is a Georgian national selling property to Russians in Limassol. The best deal he made last year was with a luxury villa listed at US$2 million, but with a market value of only half that. Coming from a society where until recently everything from a loaf to a ride on the Moscow Metro had a fixed cost, the purchaser promptly paid the asking price.

In 1988, 1.7 million Soviet citizens travelled abroad; this year, six times as many Russians will venture forth. Already, several thousand Russian expatriates have exchanged life in high-rise blocks in Moscow for the protection of a high-walled, luxury dacha in the eastern Mediterranean. These biznismen (rarely women) may have acquired their wealth by legal means, but that suggestion carries little weight with their compatriots on holiday. A combination of corruption and coercion is adjudged the most efficient way to wealth in Russia these days. Sarah (not her real name) is an Englishwoman working for a Moscow timeshare company selling space to Russians with rather more hard currency than you need for a fortnight's holiday. How many of her customers, I wondered, acquired their funds illicitly? "All of them," she replied without hesitation.

The arrival of seriously rich Russians is regarded with concern by some local Cypriots. An official from a multi-national security company, who insisted on anonymity, confided, "As soon as they got a whiff of all the money here, the underworld moved in." The Russian mafia, he said, is catching up with rich Russians settled on the island. "Soon the drugs trade will move in and Cyprus will be dragged down into the same mess as Russia."

But all the 30 or so Russians I met in Cyprus had entirely plausible accounts of how they could afford a vacation in the West. Although a fortnight in Cyprus is beyond the reach of most of those who work in legitimate enterprises with Western connections can easily make a million roubles a year. For these people, holidays abroad represent a temporary respite from general lawlessness. They also behave well. The Russians in Cyprus displayed a wholesomeness I had not experienced since my final Woodcraft Folk camp.

Britain, like every other country with a growing dependence on tourism, wants to tap into the Russian market. The average Russian visitor to Britain is a bigger spender than any other European, pumping pounds 711 a head into the economy - pounds 100 more than the typical American tourist. The British Tourist Authority has launched a modest campaign to attract an extra 20,000 visitors this year. The problem, ironically, is our bureaucracy.

"They treated me like a spy," complained Oleg Ekaterinoslavski, an economist from Moscow, about the British consulate. "There was a 40-minute interrogation asking all sorts of questions about my parents, job, apartment." Oleg compares his experience to the ordeal faced by would-be emigres from the old USSR. "I was lucky and got in, but 80 per cent who try, don't."

The British mission in Moscow has the best view in the Russian capital: it looks across the river at the heroic trinity of St Basil's, Red Square and the Kremlin. But the sight on the other side of the building is inglorious. On any working day, a sad, human snake extends into the street. Lena Lipina, enjoying a honeymoon in Cyprus, shudders at her memory of the queue. "In the winter it can be 20 degrees below and you have to wait outside. You feel humiliated when you go there. Only people who have an extremely high desire to go to Britain can stand it."

There are just two places to procure a British visa in Russia: in Moscow and in St Petersburg, 400 miles away. "The whole system is like a grotesquely convoluted version of the delicatessen counter at Sainsbury's," says Neil McGowan of One Europe Travel, which works with tourist groups visiting the UK from the former Soviet Union. In order to apply for a visa, a Russian must first buy an air ticket. He or she must then travel possibly thousands of miles to one of the two consulates and join the queue. McGowan says married couples are routinely refused permission to travel together, and single women are often rejected on suspicion of being prostitutes.

Foreign Office figures show that only two per cent of the 96,000 applications were rejected last year. McGowan has a theory about the discrepancy between this tiny figure and the much higher failure rate suggested by anecdotal evidence - and the 20 per cent rejection among applicants for US visas in Moscow. "The Foreign Office figures apply only to applications which go the full distance. If there's a problem at the first hurdle, applicants are warned their passport will be stamped 'refused a stamp at the British Embassy', and told foreign travel will be virtually impossible thereafter. At this point, most people withdraw."

Some British companies are doing well out of the boom. British Airways Holidays, for example, uses its worldwide network to despatch Russians all over the world. The Caribbean is a particular favourite. Consequently, the transit lounge at Gatwick airport is as much as many Russians see of Britain. Faced with the choice between two days waiting in line to go to Britain, or ten minutes in a travel agency specialising in Cyprus, many Russians are voting with their roubles. In the headquarters of Zeus Travel in Limassol, the computer lines to Moscow are humming. Zeus provides something that is still a novelty in Russia: service.

Androulla Antoniou, who runs Zeus, went into the Russian market in 1991 and has expanded tenfold since then by the simple expedient of offering Western standards in everything from glossy brochures to on-site assistance - Zeus trains Russian reps to look after holidaymakers who may well never have ventured abroad before. Antoniou says that Russians always book late but are not great complainers. Perhaps they are so used to being messed around by the state that the odd glitch does not much bother them.

The greatest irony of all is that these uncomplaining Reds are now moving on to the sunbeds once reserved for British holidaymakers, whose welcome is no longer wholehearted. Phidias Nicolaou, of the Limassol Hoteliers Association, says, "We're getting British tourists who are here on a week- long package costing pounds 135. They order one plate of chips and one large beer for two."

Edged out of Cyprus, and who knows where else, Britons may soon wash up in the sort of fraternal resorts now abandoned by the Russians. Sochi, here we come