When talking about the Soviet legacy in present-day Russia, secrecy, the desire for strong leaders or the desire to restore the country’s global importance are often mentioned. Less attention arouses a cumbersome and obsolete system of tourist visas that has put sticks on the wheels of this source of income. Now, in a context of Western sanctions and GDP fall, almost three decades after the breakup of the USSR, and after the successful opening experiment of the 2018 World Cup, Russia is preparing to carry out its reform as a way to Boost growth and income. The electronic visa will be launched on January 1, 2021 throughout the country, after its implementation as a pilot project in three cities for three years. “Our goal is to be able to open our country, which was closed to the world for many years …. Russia has spent a very hard last 20 years and tourism was not a priority. Now we see it as a priority,” Zarina explains. Dogúzova, the president of Rosturizm, the Federal Tourism Agency of Russia, in an interview with EL PAÍS in Madrid on the occasion of a meeting of the tourism working group.
The authorities began the experiment in 2017 with an electronic visa that allowed citizens of 18 countries to visit for eight days only the city of Vladivostok, on the eastern tip of the country. The initiative was extended last summer to Kaliningrad and to tourists from 53 countries – including all those who are now part of the EU – and, in September, to the crown jewel, St. Petersburg. More than 300,000 people have made use of these visas. The experience of the visa exemption for those attending the World Cup in 2018 boosted the annual number of visits by 10%.
But the limits of the experiment were clear. Few tourists settle for visiting only one city and those who wish to travel the vast country still have to face a complex and expensive process. From next January 1 it will be enough to fill out an online form at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at least four days before receiving the visa. It will not be necessary, as now, invitation from a host or communicate the registration at the hotel, which will directly provide the information to the authorities. “We know that the visa is one of the toughest issues. Modern people want to travel freely, cross borders and make their vacations with the minimum of obstacles and we understand that, if we want to take a step forward, we need to do some things that are a trend throughout the world, such as facilitating visa procedures . It was not an easy decision for the Government, for the president, ”he admits.
The duration of the visa will go from eight days of the pilot project to 16, still far from the 90 of the visa for the Schengen area of free transit, in which Spain is located, and from the very 30 days of the majority of face-to-face Russian visas . Dogúzova defends that it is a first step and hopes that the definitive list of countries, still under study, will exceed 53 of the pilot projects, of which the United States is outside (“I would very much like more Americans to visit Russia, because it is one of the markets that Russia least knows, but it is not so much a matter of security as of having the same visa regime, “he says) and the United Kingdom, with which Moscow experienced a diplomatic crisis in 2018 due to poisoning with a chemical agent Sergey Sergey Skripal, which London attributes to Russian military espionage and that led the EU to launch the sanctions regime for chemical attacks against Moscow. The president of Rosturizm calculates that the implementation of the national electronic visa will increase in 2021 the number of tourists between 30% and 40% compared to this year.
A decade ago only 158,000 Chinese visited Russia. Today they account for the majority (19%) of the five million tourists who visited the country in 2019, a fifth more than the previous year. Chinese tourist groups of up to 50 people are visa-free and the authorities have hired personnel for airports and railway stations that dominate their language. Russia and China share a border and their presidents, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, maintain a good political and personal relationship. Both have been strengthening in recent years their strategic alliance, exemplified in the inauguration last December of the Power of Siberia macrogasoduct, to compensate for damaged relations with the United States and Europe.
The opening to Chinese tourism has not, however, liked everyone. The Vice Minister of Culture, Alla Manílova, has proposed to allocate specific days for foreign visitors in the most popular places. “Our tourists cannot enter because the Chinese groups are doing it,” Manilova said in reference to Tsarskoye Seló, the famous town of the tsars near St. Petersburg, in statements collected by the Interfax agency.
Recently, the coronavirus has interposed in the tourist impulse. Moscow banned the entry of Chinese citizens last week, after temporarily reversing the visa exemption for its tourist groups and removing them from the pilot project in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Vladivostok, a city just a few tens of kilometers from the border they share. “It is too early to talk about figures because it is not yet high season. It will depend on how the situation develops. Most Chinese tourists come in spring and summer. We see that tour operators are worried, but the situation is not dramatic,” argues Zarina Dogúzova. The Association of Tour Operators of Russia has estimated at 90 million euros the losses that the country can suffer if the Chinese tourist flow does not recover by the end of March, the peak month of the season. “I am optimistic, she pessimistic,” replies Dogúzova. Initially the arrival of 130,000 Chinese tourists was expected in the first quarter of the year.