Venezuela’s PLAY APUERTO CRUZ — They drank rum and danced in a junk airport waiting room blowing Russian electro-pop music on a boombox. “That’s not enough,” sang, and they enjoyed the last hours of the tropical holiday.

The traveler may have been mistaken for a spring break traveler. In fact, they were Russians waiting to board their last flight back to Moscow before the sanctions blocked their return trip.

Russian tourists have helped bring Venezuela’s idyllic island of Margarita to an unlikely new life. Once upon a time, it was a mecca for tourism in the Caribbean Sea, which has been devastated in recent years by the economic crisis, international isolation, and pandemics. Under an agreement approved by the allied governments of the two countries, more than 10,000 Russians have visited Margarita on a direct charter flight from Moscow since September. This was the only international connection on the island.

The deal gave jobs to hundreds of Margarita residents at 20 hotels and forced the central government to improve the island’s chambolic supply of electricity, water and gasoline. Endemic has become a heel. Business has begun to resume. The migrant residents are back.

The recent surge in Russian visitors represents a small fraction of the 3 million tourists Margarita received each year during its peak in the early 2010s. However, the arrival of the international tour, organized for the first time in a few years, has given the locals the hope that they have changed the course of misery.

“I want to hug the foreigners who come here,” said Jose Gregorio Rodriguez, head of the Chamber of Commerce in Nueva Esparta, an archipelagic state in Venezuela, including Margaritas. “When it reaches zero, we welcome any improvement.”

Russians were attracted to Margaritas by cheap prices, exoticism, lack of visa and pandemic restrictions, and the sun all year round, tourists said they interviewed on the island in February and early March. rice field. The tour started at an all-inclusive 3-star beach hotel, including a round-trip flight from Moscow, for 15 hours one way, $ 850 per person for 13 nights.

Lucia Aleeva, a blogger from the city of Kazan, said: “In a sense, we are the first explorers.”

Some Russian tourists said they booked a Margarita ticket a day or two before their trip without knowing anything about Venezuela, and were fascinated by their destination at its unusually low price. Most of the interviewees described themselves as small business owners or local civil servants, many from the Siberian town near Mongolia, the provincial capital far from Chita. Some people have never been outside Russia. Most have never been to Latin America.

Many older tourists have begun their vacation in the typical Russian way.

Last month, Argis, who works for a construction company in Sochi, southern Russia, became intoxicated when he got off the plane in layers of warm clothing in the heat of 90 degrees Celsius. He said he had a bag of duty-free alcohol in one hand and a broken pack of various dollar bills in the other and would invest them in a future marriage on the island.

Another tourist, Andrey, who leases heavy equipment in the mining city of Celiabinsk, talks about a dinner loaded with a large bottle of cheap Chilean wine during a heavy drinking session that began in his hometown and was taken to the Moscow Airport Terminal and by plane. He told Margarita that he was surprised at the voice of the plane’s loudspeaker announcing that he had been selected to meet the Venezuelan Tourism Minister at the time of landing. He was the 10,000th Russian tourist to visit the island.

Andrey said he had a hard time getting the photo straight.

At the vast Margarita resort in St. Petersburg, Russians alternately danced Russian hits from bands such as reggaeton and Leningrad until early morning at the beach disco. Dirty ska act It was the diligence of the vulnerable working class and made the abuse of drinking romantic.

During the daytime visits to the colonial towns of Margarita, many were amazed at the Venezuelans’ ability to stay healthy despite daily financial difficulties.

However, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and the war rang rapidly in areas far from the battlefield.

As the fighting intensified, Western nations and businesses closed airspace to Russian flights and stopped leasing contracts and supply of aviation parts. In response, Russia-focused tour operator Pegas Touristik told clients sunbathing in Margarita that they had to evacuate.

Many began to wonder what hardships were waiting for them at home.

Inflation in Russia is skyrocketing. There is a growing risk of shortages and hoarding. Governments are implementing currency controls and threatening foreign businesses, bringing South American countries to life during Venezuela’s eight-year economic recession. It’s just appearing.

“Thankfully, they have the sea and the sun,” said Julia, a provincial worker in Moscow. “In a country like us, it’s much more difficult and sad to survive turmoil and poverty.”

Like the other Russians interviewed in Margarita since the beginning of the war, Julia asked not to use her surname. None of the Russian tourists spoken by the Times commented on the invasion itself or on early reports of civilian casualties in Ukraine. They often blamed poor internet connections for not keeping up with the news. The Russian government has even made mention of the war a criminal offense that can be punished with up to 15 years in prison.

Julia spent her last days on the beaches of Margarita, reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

As the fight against Russia and international sanctions intensified, the mood of the resort gradually darkened. Russian purchasing power plummeted in the ruble and their bank cards stopped working.

A Russian guest at Sansol silently ate the last dinner on the island. The lively conversation in the hotel’s large buffet hall and the shuffle and clinking of wine glasses disappeared and were replaced by the sound of distant waves.

The beach disco was empty. A group of Venezuelan performers danced on stage on their own, trying to futilely cheer on the gloomy guests who are thinking about their imminent problems.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens are facing unemployment as Russian currencies have lost about 37% of their value since the beginning of the war and sanctions are closing businesses at record paces.

The Russian Association of Tour Operators said internationally Bookings decreased by 70% The week after the outbreak of war.

The mood of the resort staff was just as harsh.

The war has hit Margarita hard. Margarita was expected to accept 65,000 Russian visitors this year. Some businessmen have remodeled idle hotels and hired new staff to accommodate expected visitors, hoping that Russian flights will open the door to other international tourists. I did.

The salary was low — the waiter earned only $ 1 a day — but in a hungry country, the job provided at least a stable diet. Since the outbreak of the war, many have already lost their jobs or reduced shifts.

The last flight from Margarita to Moscow departed on March 8. After that, all major Russian airlines stopped flying west beyond neighboring Belarus.

Pegas has been promoting Margarita tours since April, but tourists on the island say the future of the route is uncertain.

Some guests believed in Putin, who had ruled Russia for 22 years with the support of many Russians during the last few days of his vacation.

“We trust the president,” said a tourist from Moscow named Yuria. “I don’t think he will lead us to collapse.” Her husband Oleg quietly intervened, “Well, it’s already collapsed.”

Others have enjoyed the rest of what they saw as their last view of the outside world.

“I decided to relax, like last time,” said Moscow designer Rabil. “I don’t know if we will return to the same country we left.”

Ksenia Barakovskaya contributed to the report.