Tourism chief tells Russians no need for beach holidays

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Foreign tourists enjoy the sunny weather at the beach of the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh

Foreign tourists enjoy the sunny weather at the beach of the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Moscow (AFP) - Russia's tourism chief got himself into hot water on Monday by claiming there is no need for Russians to go abroad on beach holidays, after Moscow severed air ties with Egypt and warned against travel to Turkey.

In an interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the head of Russia's tourism agency Oleg Safonov said that "the need for beaches and the sea is very much a stereotype of recent years, which we already accept as our own opinion."

"Our forefathers, even the wealthy, did not go en masse to foreign seas," he said.

Safonov -- who last year declared he owned two houses on the Seychelles -- was responding to a question from an interviewer who said many Russians felt they had been "deprived of the opportunity to have a real holiday in warm parts."

Officials led by President Vladimir Putin have warned Russians against travelling to Turkey and insisted the country was no safer than Egypt, where a Russian charter plane flying from the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg was downed by a bomb in October, killing all 224 people on board.

Safonov's front-page interview was clearly intended to promote Russia's domestic tourist industry but misfired.

His comments irritated many, particularly as his opponents pointed out he last year declared ownership of property in the tropics.

On Monday, the word "Seychelles" in Russian became one of the top Twitter trends, and even state news agency RIA Novosti came up with an ironic headline: "A villa in the Seychelles didn't stop tourism chief Safonov from loving his motherland."

- Crimean vacations -

Safonov recommended that holidaymakers head to Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea instead of going abroad, suggesting it should develop "all-inclusive" tourism.

"It would be right if a significant part of the money Russian tourists spend on holiday stayed in Russia and worked to benefit our economy and not that of another country," he said.

But the temperatures there are hardly tropical, at 14 degrees Celsius in the resort city of Yalta on Monday afternoon.

Safronov's comments also remind Russians of the decades under Soviet rule when only a small elite was allowed by the authorities to travel outside the Soviet bloc.

"Yes, they think we are idiots," anti-corruption campaigner Lyubov Sobol wrote on Facebook, slamming Safonov for his "hypocrisy."

"From his house in the Seychelles, Safonov advises Russians to holiday at home," opposition politician Alexei Navalny wrote on his blog.

Safonov, a former banker and stockbroker, responded to the furore by saying that he had sold his Seychelles property.

He said his words had been misinterpreted and that he has "great respect for seaside holidays" but was "against any form of absolutism."

Russia's health authorities meanwhile also warned Russians of the dangers of sunnier climes.

"Of course I advise you to holiday in Russia," said Russia's chief sanitary doctor, Anna Popova, in comments carried by Interfax news agency over the weekend.

"It's better not to overstress the body with temperature and climate changes."