By Ivan Obreykov and Tsvetelia Tsolova
BANSKO, Bulgaria (Reuters) – Hundreds of Russian skiers are stranded in Bulgaria’s mountain resorts and wondering how they can return home after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the European Union to close its airspace to all Russian planes.
Bulgaria, a close ally of Moscow in Communist times but now a member of the EU and NATO, shut its airspace to Russian aircraft on Saturday, joining most other European nations in an act of solidarity with Ukraine.
Natalya Samokhina arrived in Bansko, a picturesque winter resort long popular with Russians, on Feb. 25 with a friend for a two-week trip and has no idea how she will get home to Moscow.
“We have everything paid for – the flight, the stay, the insurance and transfer. And we cannot fly out, the sky is closed,” said Samokhina, who added she was very sad and upset about the war in Ukraine.
“We would like them to make an exception (to the ban) for tourists. In the end ordinary people are not guilty of anything, they have simply come for a vacation…,” said Samokhina, an engineer by profession, who is due to stay another 10 days.
While the few hundred Russians seeking to return home pales in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing to the European Union to escape the fighting, local tourism officials in Bulgaria say it will be challenging for people like Samokhina to return home.
“The guests have been left to their own devices to try to get home. All airports (in Bulgaria) were closed so the only option for them is to travel through Turkey or Serbia,” said Georgi Dumanov, a local hotel owner.
Bulgaria’s neighbours Turkey and Serbia are not in the EU.
Since Saturday some Russians with extra money have been making a costly detour via Istanbul to get home, officials said.
Russian holidaymakers elsewhere also face the same quandary.
The Russian Association of Tour Operators estimates as many as 18,000 Russian holidaymakers are stuck in the Caribbean – including 8,000 in Cuba – seeking flights home.
“Carriers must provide airports for emergency landing on the route, and there are almost no such airports due to the sanctions of the EU countries and North America,” it said in a statement late on Monday.
The EU’s decision to slap sanctions on some Russian banks over the invasion has added to the stranded holidaymakers’ woes, with many finding their bankcards are now blocked, the tourism officials said.
Bansko, a ski resort in the Pirin Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria near the border with Greece, has long been especially popular with Russian and also British and Greek tourists. This winter Russian tourists came in larger numbers because Bulgaria, already seen as a cheaper alternative to the Alps, recognises Russian-made COVID vaccines.
Tour operator Bon Tour is helping between 25 to 30 Russian tourists daily to leave Bulgaria’s ski resorts. The tour operator is also assisting another 100 tourists who have to leave the country in the next two weeks.
The EU ban prevents all Russian aircraft from taking off, landing or overflying the 27-nation bloc. The ban applies to all aircraft owned by Russians, registered in Russia or controlled by Russian individuals or companies – including private jets owned or chartered by oligarchs.
(This story refiles to correct the name of reporter)
(Reporting by Ivan Obreykov in Bansko and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, editing by Michael Kahn and Gareth Jones)