More Russians are expected to visit Korea under a new visa-waiver program that took effect on January 1.

The visa exemption programme allows Russian travelers to Korea to stay for 60 days without a visa. A total of 160,639 Russians visited Korea from January to November last year. They accounted for 1.4 per cent of the total foreign arrivals in Korea.

“The number will certainly go up because Russians don’t have to go through the complex visa application process anymore. We expect it will definitely increase this year,” said Helen Lee, general director of US Travel, which attracted a total of 189 visa-free Russian tourists on January 1. The Seoul-based travel agency runs branch offices in Moscow and Vladivostok in Russia.

While the first Russian arrivals of the new year came in tour groups mostly on family trips, Lee expects to see more individual travelers than tour groups under the visa waiver program.

“We are working on more diverse tour programs targeting Russians this year,” Lee added.

The Korea Tourism Organization hoped the number of Russian tourists would increase by 20 per cent this year, giving momentum to the local tourism industry.

“Russians stopping over in Korean airports will be able to visit nearby cities instead of just staying in the airport. I expect we can add more transferring Russians as tourist arrivals.” said Kim Gap-su, director of the Europe, the Americas and Oceania Team of the Korea Tourism Organization.

Russian tourists are one of the fastest-growing tourist groups in the world, with 35.7 million people going overseas for tourism and spending US$43 billion on travel abroad, the fifth most in the global tourism market, according to data by the Russian International Travel Monitor that was disclosed on in November.

According to the KTO statistics, Russians spend an average of $1,987 on travel in Korea, $457 more than the average foreign tourist to Korea at $1,530.

“Popular items for Russian tourists are cosmetics and perfumes. They are one of the welcomed customers at duty-free shops,” Kim explained.

South Korea and Russia signed the visa exemption agreement when Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a state visit to Seoul in November.

(c)2014 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany). Distributed by MCT Information Services.