Dimitri Bobkov dances to a merengue beat in a gas station on Margarita, an island in Venezuela that he is visiting for the very first time. The isle attracts thousands of Russians like Dimitri, who just love its "heavenly" setting far from the war.
He laughs when his tour guides encourage him to take part in the 'little train,' the South American version of the 'caterpillar.'
The 31-year-old university professor arrived 10 days ago in Margarita.
Direct flight from Moscow to Margarita
“I’m lucky to be celebrating my birthday here in Venezuela. It was very unexpected and nice,” he tells French news agency AFP. “I like the people here, the food, the nature, the climate. I think that in another life, I would have lived here”, he laughs.
Dimitri took advantage of the direct connection that Russian airline Norwind operates between Moscow and Margarita. The route was reactivated on 2 October after a seven-month interruption due to the conflict in Ukraine.
Norwind avoids flying over certain airspaces that are off-limits to Russians because of sanctions. But in Margarita, a large “Welcome” sign written in Russian welcomes new arrivals.
Nearly 3,000 Russian tourists have passed through the international airport in the last two months.
Russian tourists have replaced US and European visitors
Margarita used to be a popular resort for European and North American tourists, but the economic and political crisis has caused the country to disappear from the list of tour operators’ favourite destinations. Today, Russians are the main foreign contingent.
“War is by far the most difficult thing” to live through, says Ekaterina Dolgova, a 39-year-old medical equipment saleswoman. She agrees that the punitive measures against Russia have caused “difficulties”, but “to say it’s a nightmare and a horror, no!” she says.
Most Russian tourists, however, avoid talking about the war. The most fervent supporters of President Vladimir Putin assure you that “everything is fine,” before refusing to speak on the subject.
Venezuela is friendlier and cheaper
Ekaterina chose Venezuela on the recommendation of her sister who works in tourism. “There are not many destinations available for Russia at the moment,” she explains. Her options included Egypt, a country she has already visited twice. However, she says, the attitude towards Russians there “has changed” since the invasion.
Margarita attracts Russians because of its direct connection, but mainly because it is cheap: for example, it is “cheaper” than Sochi, the summer resort in southern Russia, says Sergei Katch, who paid just over $3,500 for a 12-day package.
His wife Irina, 50, says she is impressed by the cactus and pelicans as well as the turquoise sea and white sand. “What brilliant colours,” she gushes during a jeep tour of a natural area on the island.
Their guide speaks Russian and tells the story of the hills, mountains and beaches of this region at each stop. Another guide serves them Venezuelan rum. All you can drink…
Some of Margarita's hotels have gone Russian
Russian tourists usually stay in hotels where everything is included. Many of the hotels have undertaken to “russify” their services, with announcements in Russian and at least one interpreter.
Dimitri has learned to say “I love Venezuela” in Spanish. He does not speak English and communicates mainly through the translator on his mobile phone.
Nacarid, who sells costume jewellery and beachwear, tries to negotiate with a Russian man who uses signs to ask her to halve her price. She prefers not to make the sale. "They bargain too much,” she complains, saying she misses the island’s golden age.
Venezuela's Maduro wants 100,000 Russian visitors by yearend
The Russian tourism boom has had a “direct” impact on Margarita’s economy, says Viviana Vethencourt, president of the tourism chamber of Nueva Esparta state, which includes the island, but says there are no statistics.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has signed an agreement with Russia, a strong ally, to welcome some 100,000 tourists until 31 December.
Packages include options to visit Canaima National Park, home to Salto Angel, the world’s highest waterfall, Coche Island, also in Nueva Esparta, or Caracas.
Dimitri opted for a day trip to Caracas. He visited the mausoleum of the late former president, Hugo Chavez, and played football with children in a shanty town.
“This will probably stay in my memory for the rest of my life,” he says.