Wednesday, 14 July 2010

If you open it, they will come to Russia

Yesterday saw a record number of foreign tourists arrive in St. Petersburg on cruise ships – all benefitting from an easing of visa rules.

Five liners docked at the city’s port on Tuesday, disembarking just over 10,000 passengers eager to tour the Hermitage, sail the canals and party into the white nights.

It stems from the decision in May 2009 to open up seven Russian ports to visa-free travelers for three days.

Since then ferry traffic to Russia has doubled and – air arrivals in the Northern Capital could soon enjoy the same perks.

Tourism experts have welcomed the scheme, which many want to see rolled out across the rest of Russia to stimulate foreign interest in the country.

But there are still question marks about how much Russia should open up while Europe keeps its doors closed.

Earlier this year, HVS Hospitality Services managing director Tatyana Veller said: “To really make progress we need to ease the heavy visa process – but that has to be a two-way process.

“If Europe makes it easier for us, we can make it easier for them.”

But tourists taking advantage of the chance to cruise around Petersburg are in no doubt.

“We really liked it, and we'd love to see more of Russia if it wasn't so difficult,” Irene Bainbridge informed, after visiting on a Baltic cruise earlier this year. It's a fascinating place and we had a great trip but I don't really understand why there has to be so much paperwork to visit Moscow.”

Elsewhere in the world, at least, there are signs that Russia is relaxing its tourist visa regime. As part of a burgeoning alliance with Latin America, restrictions on travel between Russia and Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia have been eased.

The political implications of making allies in a traditional US sphere of influence – at a time when the west is accused of meddling in the former USSR – are obvious.

And as the country prepares its bid to host the 2018 World Cup it seems likely that a further relaxation will follow to combat the huge numbers of fans expected to want to watch the tournament.

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