The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off on Thursday in Russia, and it’s the country’s first time hosting the quadrennial event. But with negative headlines of Russian hacking and spying plaguing travelers in the U.S. and Europe – two of the largest outbound markets for the World Cup – how will tourism arrivals in Russia compare to past years of the global event?

While travelers are usually able to separate politics from a place, that’s arguably more difficult to do when the name of the country has been in the news almost every day for years, as has been the case with Russia. With the World Cup a platform to showcase its softer side, the country has dropped its visa requirements and made matches easily accessible in an attempt to put its best foot forward.

Some 2.5 million tickets have been allocated and sold as of last week for the 2018 World Cup, compared to 3.4 million attendees for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil,  according to FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. That’s a 26 percent drop in the number of tickets sold between 2014 and 2018.

It’s unclear if FIFA decided to allocate fewer tickets for 2018 than it did in 2014 or if demand is softer for this year’s event. FIFA didn’t respond to Skift’s request for comment before publication.

But it’s apparent that fewer U.S. travelers have an appetite for the World Cup this time around. FIFA data show about 204,000 U.S. travelers attended the 2014 World Cup; for 2018, just 88,825 Americans have bought tickets, a 56 percent drop. Last-minute tickets will be on sale through the final match on July 15, but most tickets have already been sold.

The U.S. team also didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup, which likely turned off Americans from buying tickets.

The UK, which has also recently exchanged spats with Russia, will have 44 percent fewer travelers in Russia than it did in Brazil (32,000 versus 58,000, respectively).

Russia’s Long-Shot Chance to Change Travelers’ Minds

With 11 Russian host cities on display for the world to see, the country certainly has an opportunity to make a better impression as a nation of friendly people.

Discovery Russia, a two-year-old Russian-owned tour operator based in Australia, is bringing more than 1,000 travelers to the World Cup, said general manager Varvara Topolyanskaya. A Russian who lives in Australia, Topolyanskaya spoke to Skift from Moscow as she helped facilitate various tours. She plans to attend some of the Australian matches with her clients.

Australia, the U.S., and Latin America are the company’s top source markets for the World Cup, and Discovery Russia will bring travelers to multiple cities for different matches.

“We’re hoping for a completely different image of the country after people watch the matches on TV,” said Topolyanskaya. “We’re always asking our clients of their first impression of Russia and the number one response we get is that Russian people are so friendly.”

She added: “I think we have a lot of brainwashing right now in the media on what Russia is like, but that’s not what Russia is.”

Topolyanskaya said her mission is to show travelers the real Russia. “In our case, we’re not just another events company organizing tours for the World Cup,” she said. “We have Russian heritage and we know how to deal with the Russian supply. Clients are wondering if it’s safe to speak English on the street and what if they don’t speak Russian and we help them through those concerns.”

Many travelers have been finding Discovery Russia organically through Google searches, said Topolyanskaya, but the company plans to start promoting tours to Russia in Canada, the U.S., Hong Kong, and Singapore later this year.

“Our best seller is currently the Trans-Mongolian train which takes you from Moscow to Beijing, but you’re only on the train for a few nights and the rest of the time you’re staying in hotels,” she said.

A Visa Break

Russia has suspended visa requirements during the World Cup for countries like the United States that would normally need a visa to enter. Instead, travelers apply for a FAN ID, which they can get by proving they purchased a ticket for at least one World Cup match.

“This is one of the first times Russia has done this for foreigners,” said Topolyanskaya. “Russia is also teaching policemen to speak some English, especially in host cities to make asking for help easier. Most restaurants have to have special local meals on their menus to give you a sense of the culture.”

Euromonitor, a market research provider, estimates that international arrivals in Russia will grow by 4 percent to 37.5 million trips by 2022. “From a conservative standpoint, Euromonitor’s Travel Forecast Model forecasts 1.4 percent increase in the number of total arrivals to Russia in 2018, directly caused by hosting a major sporting event,” said Alan Rownan, sports industry manager, in a statement.

“However, negative factors, such as lack of mid-tier accommodation facilities, safety concerns, relatively high visiting costs and burdensome visa regulations for non-ticket holders will have an impact on the incoming tourist flows,” said Rownan. “Furthermore, the recent political tension between Russia and UK is also likely to undermine tourist flows from the latter.”

A Connected World Cup

Brazil’s World Cup in 2014 was the first to take place in an era of widespread Wi-Fi networks and social media. More than one million people checked into Facebook during the last World Cup, for example, and mobile bookings increased dramatically in Latin America in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup.

“Russia is also using a lot of technology for the World Cup, that’s one of the main ways I think this World Cup will be different from past events,” said Topolyanskaya. “Most cities and stadiums are providing free Wi-Fi.”

All 12 stadiums in Russia will have Russian and English channels on messaging app Viber. The channels will provide details about navigation and transport options around the stadium on match days.

World Cup attendees can also take free trains on Russia’s rail network to matches in different host cities, and all public transport will be free with a FAN ID.

There is one concern about all the connectivity: It could give hackers in Russia more opportunities to cause trouble. The U.S. Department of State published a checklist for World Cup attendees and already had a Level 3 (reconsider travel) alert for Russia.

A top U.S. counter-intelligence official also advised travelers attending the World Cup to leave their phones at home or take the batteries out to avoid potential hacking.

Tourism Legacy

Brazil’s tourism officials said the 2014 World Cup helped to create 14 million jobs and considered that event a success for overall economic impact. But the tourism legacy for the 2014 World Cup for Brazil has been a mixed bag largely because Brazil dropped the ball on effective marketing.

Large sporting events usually don’t end up paying off for host countries, but much of that has to do with how the country capitalizes on all the exposure after the fact.

On the bright side for Russia, some global markets will have a bigger presence at the 2018 games than those in 2014.

Mexico will have more than 60,000 travelers in Russia compared to 35,000 in Brazil, and Colombia and Germany will also have more travelers at this year’s event compared to 2014.

China, which didn’t break the top 20 countries for ticket sales in 2014, had the eighth-highest ticket sales in 2018 with more than 40,000 tickets. China’s team failed to qualify in both 2014 and 2018.

More than half (54 percent) of the tickets are for international travelers, FIFA data show, and more than 870,000 were sold to Russian fans.

More than 3 billion people around the world watched the 2014 World Cup on TV and mobile devices, with China, Brazil, and the United States the markets with the highest number of viewers and engagement.

This year, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, which collectively won their bid to host the 2026 World Cup bid this week, will likely be watching for any areas where they can upstage Russia when it’s their turn.

Photo Credit: In this photo taken on Saturday, April 21, 2018, a view on the new the World Cup stadium during the Russian league soccer match between Rotor and Luch-Energiya in Volgograd, Russia . The stadium will hold group-stage games at the World Cup. (AP Photo/) Dmitriy Rogulin / Associated Press