Russia banks on paperless visas driving tourism

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MIKHAIL SVETLOV
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MIKHAIL SVETLOV

Moscow — Norma Garca’s dream vacation, an extended jaunt with her adult daughter through erstwhile empires in Europe and the Middle East, was nearly dashed before it even began by Russia President Vladimir Putin’s machinery of state.

The two Mexicans did not even need visas for France, and Garca quickly got the ones required for Turkey using her home computer in Aguascalientes. But for Russia, she had to hire a courier to hand-deliver their passports to the embassy in Mexico City, about 500km south, along with proof of prepaid airline tickets and hotel reservations. After a hand-wringing few weeks— and $160 in fees — they finally got their dark-green travel booklets back, freshly thickened with full-page stamps of approval.

“My nerves were on edge because they just wouldn’t tell me what was happening with our passports,” Garca said in the lobby of the five-star Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg one recent morning, as her excited daughter negotiated the day’s itinerary with their Russian guide. “It took a day for Turkey — one day!”

If only the duo had waited just a little longer, Russia’s president would have made their visit to his hometown a whole lot easier, not to mention cheaper.

On October 1, this former czarist capital switched to a free, e-visa regime that includes a pledged 96-hour turnaround time for citizens of 53 countries. The rest of the Russian Federation, which stretches from the watery edges of Alaska and Japan to its nuclear-armed exclave inside the borders of the EU, will follow suit on January 1 2021, when a special app will make the process even simpler. The fee will not exceed $50.

In a world where even the notoriously strict kingdom of Saudi Arabia is now opening up to tourism, Russia is seeing the light. Until now, the Kremlin — literally a fortress — resisted calls from officials responsible for economic growth to lower the metaphoric drawbridges so more cash-toting globetrotters can explore Russia’s unique admixture of cultures, history, religions and natural wonders.

Aides to Putin say it took hosting a soccer tournament, the 2018 World Cup, and the badly needed revenue that came from 3-million fans who were granted visa-free access, to convince him that his technocrats can handle huge inflows of foreigners without compromising national security.

“Russia now sees tourism as a strategic sector,” Zarina Doguzova, the government’s newly appointed point person for the initiative, said in an interview in St Petersburg. “That’s our task — to welcome millions more tourists from around the world.”

Doguzova spoke on the sidelines of the UN World Tourism Organization’s biennial meeting of ministers, held in Russia this year for the first time and addressed by Putin via video. Moving easily between Russian, Spanish and English, she said her Rostourism agency learnt best practices by studying the industry leaders — France, Spain and the US, which together handle about a quarter of a billion visitors a year.

Notably absent from the e-visa list are the members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance: the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. People from these countries are still welcome, but they will have to apply the way Garca and her daughter did.

Even without leading anglophone nations, officials say Putin was sold on the idea after being presented with forecasts showing tourism receipts would overtake arms sales within a few years. Easing entry for most of the world’s population also dovetails with the soft power the Kremlin likes to project, helping to counteract the steady drumbeat of negative news about Russia, particularly in the West, according to deputy economy minister Sergey Galkin.

“We want foreigners to look at Russia not through the Fox News screen, but through the people they’ll meet here,” Galkin, who oversees the tourism sector, said over coffee at a cafe in Moscow.

His ministry expects the pivot to paperless visas will drive a near-tripling of sector revenue by 2035 to $29bn, or about what Russians spent abroad in 2018, catapulting the country into the top 10 tourist destinations from 16th now. Russia hosted 25- million tourists last year, yet only about a third of those came from outside the former Soviet Union.

Spread across 11 time zones, the world’s biggest country has a lot to showcase, as anyone who has followed Putin at any point in the past two decades has probably seen.

The retired KGB colonel has been filmed chasing whales in Pacific waters, tagging wild animals on the Siberian tundra, touring active volcanoes in the Far East, plumbing the unrivalled depths of Lake Baikal in a mini-sub and unearthing ancient pottery in the Black Sea.

But it is St Petersburg, known as Leningrad when Putin was born here, that remains the country’s top draw. Founded in 1703 as Russia’s “window to Europe” by the modernising Peter the Great, local authorities often bill their city of 5-million as the “Venice of the North” for its grand canals, fabulous art collections and ornate buildings designed by Italian architects.

The e-visas will be valid for eight days, a span that will double to 16 when the nationwide system is introduced. City officials said they received more than 3,500 applications on the first day of the new regime.

Russia is also ending the requirement that visitors register with authorities once they arrive, a bureaucratic holdover from the communist era that bedevils guests of boutique hotels and users of booking platforms like Airbnb, but not until 2021.

In the meantime, Rostourism is in the initial stages of creating Russia’s first worldwide advertising campaign, not unlike “Rendez-vous en France” or “Incredible India.” The theme has not been determined yet, but the push will include marketing offices in select cities and local partnerships in many more.

Still, there are non-political realities like subpar infrastructure outside the major tourist hubs that officials may not want their country to be judged on either. Even though Russia has moved up four positions in the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness rankings since 2017, to 39th, it continues to lag relatively poorer nations including Brazil and India.

Those shortcomings do not seem to be deterring residents of countries that sent the biggest contingents to the World Cup. The number of tourists from Spain, which was knocked out of the tournament by a surprisingly resilient Russian team, and eventual winner France, jumped 50% and 40% in the first six months of the year, respectively.

Niche destinations such as Murmansk, the largest Arctic city, are already attracting more tourists as a result of visa-free arrangements with China and a clutch of other nations, but it is the lowering of barriers for western Europeans that have local businesses most excited, said Aleksey Renzhin, owner of the North For You tourist company.

“Watching the Northern Lights is a major trend right now and doing that in Russia costs two or three times less than in Scandinavia,” Renzhin said.

Back in St Petersburg, 800km from the Arctic Circle, the influx of Chinese is being seen by some as more of a bother than a boom.

Igor Kalashnikov, who runs the regional branch of travel company UTS, said of all the different nationalities the Chinese provide the least economic benefit because they travel mainly in groups and have their own hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and buses.

The Chinese are coming in such numbers — a record 1.3-million are expected this year — that they are crowding out other visitors at star attractions like the Hermitage Museum and Catherine’s Palace. The palace’s famed Amber Room is so popular with denizens of the Middle Kingdom that waiting times have swollen to five hours or more on some days — prompting the culture ministry in Moscow to consider issuing quotas.

For these and other reasons, Kalashnikov said he cannot wait for the biggest spenders — the western Europeans and the Japanese— to rush into his homeland’s opening arms.

Kalashnikov said the success of the e-visa programme will depend a lot on the messaging of the international ad campaign, and urged officials to choose a motto that’s known everywhere, with “From Russia With Love” being a particular favourite.

Of course, that’s a James Bond movie in which 007 has to navigate a honey trap, so “we’ll have to flip the idea on its head,” he said. “Before it was about spies. Now it’s about offering love to the world.”