Historically speaking, it has not been easy for tourists to travel to Russia. Regionally-specific visa systems, as well as long, detailed applications and fees, have meant that generally only highly-motivated tourists or business travelers are willing to go to the trouble to visit.
And for security hawks in the Kremlin — long skeptical of outsiders — that’s been just fine. But recently, the Russian Federation has demonstrated a desire to open up the country to more tourists in a series of measures that make it easier for some (but not all) foreigners to visit. This raises a question: After years of unusually restrictive requirements, why now?
Of course, there’s an obvious reason for any country to relax its visa regimes: It generally brings in more tourists, and thus often spurs more economic growth. But at a time when post-Cold War relations with the West (specifically the U.S. and UK) have taken a nosedive, Russia is even more keen to assert itself as a global world power that’s fully integrated in world affairs — and open to all the foreign investment that comes along with that status. It’s no secret that global tourism is a great tool to help achieve that end.
In 2018, the Russian Federation saw 24.6 million visitors, according to World Travel and Tourism Council, and Russia reported 10 percent boost that was attributable to the World Cup. By comparison, the UK saw 38 million and the United States 79.6 million.
“Tourism and geopolitical soft power are intertwined. It’s not just money that they gain — it’s actually a degree of legitimacy,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “And certainly they found this with both Sochi and the World Cup: Getting a lot of tourists in means people actually find out that Russia is not this kind of construct out of a 1970s Cold War spy film. It’s not just that people come and spend money, but also that actually people leave with a very different impression of Russia.”
Indeed Galeotti notes that this recent liberalization could have had its beginnings in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, when a skeptical Putin realized the soft power capabilities that tourism could bring. Both then, and during the 2018 World Cup (when there was a special Fan ID visa), none of the “nightmare scenarios” — like, say, a terrorist incident or the “the CIA [using] the World Cup to come recruit Russians” — came to fruition. This perhaps led the Russian federation to be a bit less skeptical at the prospect of inviting tourists.
The most recent steps to open up include an e-visa for the Baltic coastal enclave of Kaliningrad — bordered by Poland and Lithuania — which in July became available to 53 nationalities. In October the Kremlin has indicated it will launch a similar e-visa for St Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad Oblast region, though the countries it will be available to have not been announced. These visas can be applied for online up to four days before arrival, and are valid for eight days in a 30 day period. They are also free.
Perhaps most significantly, numerous reports have suggested that in 2021, something resembling a country-wide e-visa scheme will be rolled out. Though the Kremlin has not released specifics, Galeotti believes it may include the majority of Russia, barring some key strategic and militarized areas. It is not believed that the U.S., Canada, or UK will be entitled to any of the above schemes.
All of these actions are part of the “selective de-Sovietization” of Russia, says Paddy Blewer, group director of public relations for investment migration firm Henley and Partners. He also formerly worked in investment banking in Russia, and has a masters degree focused on the post-Soviet economy.
“They still have a [visa] program that is based on a fundamentally restrictive attitude about not wanting too many foreigners to enter the Soviet Union,” says Blewer. “As with much in Russia, there is that Soviet heritage, and they’re going through a process of what to keep, what to discard, and what to adapt.”
That’s not to say that this selective liberalization doesn’t come with perceived risks for Russia — and plenty of complicated geopolitics.
“The reasons for [doing this] are fairly straightforward. In some ways more interesting are the reasons agains,” said Galeotti. “On the one hand you have a certain kind of hidebound security interests who absolutely feel that any kind of relaxation of the controls would somehow create vulnerabilities,” or in other words, invite foreigners with nefarious motives into the country.
The other reason, Galeotti notes, is an insistence on reciprocity. In other words: We won’t relax our visa requirements until you relax yours. And while many other countries use the same approach when it comes to visa schemes, he doesn’t think this long-used tactic has been in Russia’s best interest. Russia, he said, needs the soft power gain that comes from being more welcoming more than it needs the respect that comes from taking a hardline reciprocity approach.
“Russia has a huge untapped tourist market and at the moment they’re doing a lot of effort to bring in the Chinese, but actually there’s a lot more that could be done with western tourism,” Galeotti said. “This is case of once again of Russia’s security elite actually acting against Russia’s best interests.”
That openness with China and Asia more broadly has certainly worked. Chinese travelers are entitled to travel visa-free to Russia provided they are in an organized tour group of at least three people. In 2017, Russia also opened up the eastern region around the port city of Vladivostok to an e-visa scheme to 18, mostly Asian countries including China, Japan, and Korea. Eugene Oleynik, senior director for Eastern Europe and Russia for Expedia, said these policies have resulted in “super growth” of Asian travelers to Russia. Across Expedia’s brands, year on year growth for Asian markets to Russia at the end of this year’s second quarter was 200 percent for China, 40 percent for Japan, and 60 percent for Hong Kong.
“Previously [Asian travelers] weren’t aware of how easy and welcoming it is,” Oleynik told Skift. “For a Korean or Japanese guest it takes one half hours to fly over to that destination and they get to experience a totally new and European style of life. So for them it’s seen as a trend of ‘visit Europe in one and a half hours.’”
Tourism as a Geopolitical Instrument
Russia’s issues with the west, of course, remain enduringly complicated. Even more so now, after election meddling in the U.S. and both the Salisbury incident in 2018 and the murder of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in a London hotel in 2006. Reflecting that complexity, “Russian visa policy has less to do with tourism than other visa policies,” Blewer said.
He cites the ongoing tension with the UK (which has been left out of all the aforementioned schemes, despite the EU being let in to some) and notes that “it has been apparent over the last 25 years that Russian and British visa policy mirrors each other at times of geopolitical tension. It is used as an instrument of policy by both Westminster and Kremlin, and it’s become quite a public form of diplomacy and politics.”
But even without western tourists, there is plenty of room for Russia’s tourism economy to expand, and for the country to shed the Cold War spy movie reputation that many would-be tourists may still have. Indeed, when it comes to tourism, Russia seems to be opening for business.