Porsches, Bentleys and other Russian-registered luxury cars fill the parking lot at Helsinki airport as Finland becomes a major transit country for Russian tourists heading to Europe.
The European Union closed its airspace to Russian planes after Moscow invaded Ukraine, forcing anyone wishing to fly to Europe to cross the border or take a circuitous route using non-Western airlines.
Since Russia’s Covid-19 restrictions expired in July, there has been a boom in Russian travelers and a growing backlash in Europe against allowing Russian tourists in while the war continues.
A quick stroll through the Helsinki airport car park revealed dozens, if not hundreds, of high-end cars with Russian license plates, including a new Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan and a Porsche 911 Turbo S.
“It puzzles me,” Finnish traveler Jussi Hirvonen said after leaving the garage. “I wish they weren’t here until the Ukraine situation is resolved.”
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told AFP that the Nordic nation had become a “transit country” for Russian tourists.
“Helsinki Airport is currently experiencing a lot of Russian tourism.”
Finland wants EU decision
Finland said last week it would limit Russian tourist visas to 10% of current volumes from September 1 due to growing dissatisfaction with Russian tourism amid the war in Ukraine.
But Russians continue to enter Finland with visas issued by other EU countries in the Schengen borderless travel zone for their trips.
“They come here with Schengen visas issued by different countries and then continue via Helsinki airport,” Haavisto said.
According to a survey by Finnish border guards in August, around two-thirds of Russians crossing Finland’s eastern border do so with a Schengen visa issued by a country other than Finland.
“Hungary, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece and Spain normally issue visas to Russians and are usually among the top issuing countries each year,” said Mert Sasioglu, head of border guards. .
Schengen rules do not allow Finland to close the border to specific nationalities, Haavisto said. Such sanctions can only be decided jointly by the EU.
“As Finland and the Baltic countries are considering restricting these visas, it would be good for all EU countries to take similar decisions,” Haavisto said.
This sentiment was shared by many Finns at the airport.
“There should be an EU decision to close the border,” Finnish traveler Jussi Hirvonen said.
Finland intends to raise the issue at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Czech Republic on August 30.
“Everyone should travel”
After Russia lifted its Covid travel restrictions on July 15, the number of Russian tourists visiting Finland has increased.
Although the numbers are still well below pre-Covid levels, there were more than 230,000 border crossings in July, down from 125,000 in June.
For many Russian travelers, the thought of not being able to travel to Europe is met with disappointment.
“Everyone should travel, because when you see how other peaceful countries live, you also become more peaceful,” said Pavel Alekhin, a 32-year-old Russian professional athlete on his way to a bike festival in Basel.
Russian traveler Vadim wan der Berg said the situation was “very difficult” for normal Russians, as many no longer have the opportunity to fly for work or study.
“We are all waiting for this to stop and want a normal situation all over the world, in our country and in Ukraine too.”
The European Commission acknowledged last week that discussions were underway to see if a “coordinated approach” on Russian visas could be achieved.
Eastern EU countries Latvia, Lithuania and Poland stopped issuing new tourist visas to Russians soon after the war began.
Estonia has gone further and is considering arresting Russians who have visas issued by other EU states.
But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has expressed reservations about such restrictions.
“This is not the Russian people’s war, this is Putin’s war,” Scholz noted.
He said limiting tourist visas would also penalize “all people who flee Russia because they don’t agree with the Russian regime”.