If Western sanctions against Russia are to continue, Russia is in a unique position to take advantage of the situation by relaxing visa rules and welcoming tourists.
Right now, you can get almost twice as many roubles for your money as you could a year ago. This makes Russia cheaper to visit than it ever was.
However, the current onerous requirements and unnecessary bureaucracy to obtain a visa to Russia has been holding Russian tourism back for many years. The current visa system is inconsistent, inconvenient, and puts many people off travelling to Russia. Visa registration once in-country, differs across Russia and can also prove cumbersome and problematical.
Oleg Safonov, head of Rosturism, the Russian Federal Tourism Agency agrees. He proposes to scrap the lot.
Safonov’s latest proposals, as reported on Interfax, include electronic visas, visas on arrival and simplification of the registration process. Travellers to Russia will very much welcome the moves, if implemented. Russia is a little late to the party with this; they should have done it years ago.
Russia already allows visa-free entry to citizens of some countries. But they are not the countries that significant tourism revenue is derived from. Rosturism recently announced that the number of foreign tourists coming to Russia grew in 2015 by 16.5 percent. Chinese tourists account for most of that growth to date. Russia now has an eye on increasing tourism from the rest of the world.
Readers of this site will be aware of the constant hysterical warmongering and hyperbole that Western politicians and their cohorts in the pliant mainstream media churn out day after day. One of the best ways to counter this misinformation war waged by the West is to allow people to easily visit Russia and see what it is like for themselves.
And who doesn’t want a selfie on Red Square?
Only when more people begin to visit Russia will the skewed perception of Russia abroad change. Visitors will see that much of what they read and hear in their local media is patently false and concocted for purely political reasons.
Relaxing visa restrictions means easy travel, especially for Europeans who are only a budget flight away. Over time, more contact between Europeans and Russians will improve political relations. It is hard for politicians to sell us lies about places we have actually been to. Western media will then find it harder to recycle the ludicrous US State Department propaganda we see daily in our newspapers now.
If Russia is to develop the tourism industry it tells us it wants, things need to change faster. Instead of occasionally tinkering around the edges of the visa system to allow for sporting events and cruise arrivals to specified ports with a host of conditions, it is time Russia’s visa system had root and branch reform.
Tourist visas could easily be issued on arrival; fingerprints could be taken at the same time. Invitations and registration need to be scrapped altogether. They are relics of the Cold War and serve little practical purpose today. An online visa waiver system, similar to what the US uses would work far better. Oleg Safonov from Rosturism gets this.
If Russia is going to have wider appeal to tourists, the visa system needs urgent radical reform. It will be impossible for destinations such as Sochi and Crimea to become popular with nearby Europeans if obstacles in the form of the current visa system remain in place.
The time for Russia to act is now. The rouble is currently good value for foreigners. Let people come and spend their money in Russia.
You can follow Stuart Smith on Twitter @RussianHQ. This article first appeared on Russia Insider.