Now, fewer Aurora Borealis babies and a tourism slump for Russia’s Far North are likely to be among the many global ripple effects of the coronavirus outbreak.
The country’s temporary entry ban for nearly all Chinese — tourists, workers, students and private travelers — started Thursday. But the measure has been questioned by some critics as too extreme, especially considering just two cases of the disease have been announced in Russia. Both patients have since recovered.
Chinese visitors account for nearly 30 percent of Russia’s total tourism, according to the World Without Borders travel association.
Tour operators expect losses of roughly $43.7 million for January and February and fear that could climb to more than $468 million if the ban is not lifted until summer, the Association of Tour Operators of Russia told the Interfax news agency. The group’s director has said it intends to ask for compensation from the government.
Russia closed its entire 2,600-mile border with China three weeks ago.
“The only thing that can be ascertained is that all necessary measures are being taken to prevent the coronavirus from getting into our country and spreading around,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
There is also probably politics at play.
“The government is answering to a popular demand to deal with the threat and wants to show that it’s moving ahead of the curve,” said Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s also a way to contain rising Sinophobia among some pockets of the Russian population.”
Relations between China and Russia have warmed in recent years — Chinese President Xi Jinping described Russian leader Vladimir Putin as his “best friend” last year — and Putin has publicly praised China’s “decisive and vigorous” measures to fight the virus.
Gabuev said he doesn’t expect any long-term strains between Moscow and Beijing because of the ban.
“The Kremlin understands symbolic value and sensitivity of this issue to Beijing and Xi personally,” Gabuev said. “At the same time, Chinese leadership understands the pragmatic need of Russia to protect its population.”
Although Moscow and St. Petersburg remain the top destinations in Russia for Chinese tourists, the Arctic port of Murmansk has risen in popularity.
It is a cheaper alternative to seeing the Northern Lights in Scandinavian countries, and a tour of the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker ship has information and menus available in Chinese.
One in five of the region’s visitors are Chinese. Murmansk saw just 4,000 Chinese tourists in 2016, but there were approximately 20,000 just last year, according to Anna Sibirkina, who heads the World Without Borders China Friendly program.
She credited the Chinese Northern Lights myth for the bump.
“You see a lot of young people and young couples coming to Murmansk just for that,” Sibirkina said.
Oleg Terebenin, the director of the tour operator VisitMurmansk, said he personally doesn’t propagate the myth, but “any belief that brings sales, why not?”
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Murmansk wasn’t equipped to accommodate all of the new visitors, Sibirkina said, but now the sudden drought is hurting businesses.
Terebenin estimated that 20 percent of his business comes from Chinese tourists.
Coronavirus “has a major impact on us,” he said. “It’s very sad. … But this won’t be for long. Today, our Chinese colleagues sent us a very joyful letter that they’re hopeful that Chinese will be traveling all over the world again soon.”