By Francesco Guarascio and Khanh Vu
HANOI (Reuters) - Russians have this year shunned Vietnam, traditionally a popular retreat for its travellers, with a war-induced halt on direct flights and the appeal of rival destinations among factors that have kept its biggest-spending visitors at bay.
Less than 40,000 Russians went to Vietnam in 2022, official data released on Thursday showed, a nearly 94% drop from about 650,000 in pre-pandemic 2019, and less than half the number who visited Thailand, another destination popular with Russians, in November alone.
Vietnam's tourism sector has struggled this year, with just 3.6 million arrivals compared to 18 million in 2019, due mainly to lower global travel demand and a more restrictive entry policy compared to its neighbours. Tourism generated about $12 billion for Vietnam in 2019.
Aside from China, from which travel has slumped due to its inbound pandemic restrictions, the drop in Russian visitors was the biggest among Vietnam's main tourism markets in 2022.
In contrast, Thailand in November saw 108,985 Russian visitors, double that of October with seven times the number received in September.
Tony Bui of Legend Travel Group, traditionally one of Vietnam's largest tour operators for the Russian market, said the company had stopped focusing on Russia "due to the sensitive period" and because of lower demand.
Though Russians are not Vietnam's top arrivals by number, they typically spend more than visitors from other countries, each averaging $1,830 per trip, according to 2019 data from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.
That is more than double that spent by Japanese, and more than the average $1,021 from Chinese visitors.
Russia and Vietnam have longstanding ties dating back to the Soviet era, but the impacts of the Ukraine war and lack of direct flights from Moscow, plus on-arrival visas of just 15 days, are factors seen as deterring Russian visitors.
State-owned Vietnam Airlines suspended flights to and from Russia in March shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine, citing aircraft insurance among reasons for the decision.
Vietnam earlier this year resumed direct flights to the United States, Britain, Australia, among other major markets. The airline did not immediately respond to questions on when it would resume the Russia route.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio and Khanh Vu; Editing by Martin Petty)