Russia’s Aeroflot cancels June flights to Turkey in possible tourism setback

Russian airline Aeroflot cancelled most flights to Turkey scheduled for June, signalling a possible hitch in Turkey’s efforts to negotiate an end to a Russian travel ban on the country.

The state-run airline announced the cancellations on Monday, Reuters reported, citing a statement by the company. The decision came as senior Turkish officials travelled to Moscow for talks.

Russia imposed the ban on travel to Turkey in April, citing rising coronavirus infections, aside from two weekly flights between Moscow and Istanbul. The suspension was valid for the period between April 15 and June 1.

Turkey is pushing Russia to lift the embargo, imposed during bilateral tensions over Ukraine, to kickstart its tourism season. Russian visitors have topped the list of tourist arrivals to Turkey over the past several years, most of whom visit the southern resort city of Antalya and its environs.

“We had stopped sales and cancelled all flights to Turkey for June, with the exception of two flights per week permitted by the (coronavirus) task force as to not inconvenience passengers due to possible cancellations,” Aeroflot said in the statement, according to Reuters.

Russia has decided to extend the ban on flights to Turkey until the end of June, Reuters said, citing an airline industry source that it did not identify. Moscow has yet to decide, another source said.

Turkey relies on revenue from tourism to help boost economic growth and to finance its current account deficit, which stands at about 5 percent of GDP. A slump in tourism income last year pressured the lira, which hit a record low against major currencies, spurring inflation and requiring the central bank to increase interest rates.  

Ibrahim Kalın, the spokesman of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy were in Moscow on Monday to discuss tourism and vaccine shipments with senior Russian officials.

The visit occurred at the end of a tight lockdown on Turkey’s population, introduced at the end of April after COVID-19 infections surged to a record high of about 63,000 daily. Cases have since declined to just over 10,000.

Russia has responded positively to Turkish requests to lift the travel ban but has requested a little time to make a final decision and to perform inspections, Ersoy said at the visit’s conclusion, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.