Russia Considering Overdue Changes to the Current Visa System
Oleg Safonov, the head of Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency, has proposed simplifying the visa regime for foreign tourists coming to Russia.
The current onerous requirements and unnecessary bureaucracy in place to obtain a visa to Russia has been holding Russian tourism back for many years. Safonov’s proposal includes electronic visas, visas on arrival and simplification of the registration process.
Travellers to Russia will very much welcome the moves, if implemented. 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.
Russia already permits visa-free entry to citizens of some countries. But they are not the countries that significant tourism revenue is likely derived from.
Since 2009, tourists have been able to stay in Russia visa-free up to 72 hours when entering Russia through the ports of Anadyr, Kaliningrad, Korsakov, Novorossiysk, Sevastopol, Sochi, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok or Vyborg by ferry.
This visa waiver is quite restrictive though; it only applies to those who travel within an organised group, on certain carriers, and does not provide for the traveller to explore the cities on their own.
In 2014, Sputnik reported a proposal to extend the visa waiver policy to tourists arriving by train. But that, along with a similar proposal to allow foreign tourists flying into the country’s major airports to stay for up to three days without a visa, seems to have made no progress in over a year. Despite having been passed in a first reading in the lower house of parliament.
The current plan to turn Vladivostok into a free port also mentions the intention of visa-free travel for some. But that will only apply to Vladivostok and Primorye.
The current system penalises citizens of the UK and Denmark who must, since December 2014, travel in person to a visa application centre to provide fingerprints for each and every visa. This has dissuaded many British travellers from visiting Russia this year as the cost and time of attending the visa centre in London, on top of the hefty visa fee can run into several hundreds of pounds. Many must take days off work and lose salary to do this.
Family visas also need urgent reform. For those married to a Russian national, a five year multi-entry visa would be far better than the current draconian system. The touted ‘benefits’ of the family visa are far outweighed by the need for the Russian national to attend the visa centre, the foreign national to submit biometrics in person and the rule they must travel to Russia together.
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 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 then, too. I would prefer to see invitations and registration 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 better.
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 the author on Twitter @RussianHQ