Skift Take

The RUSSPASS app is a major competitive step in boosting Russia's appeal as a tourist destination. But no e-visa, no dice. The two must go hand in hand.

Traveling to and exploring Russia has been made easier for global travelers — at least, that’s the message the government is sending with RUSSPASS, a one-stop digital app and platform that soft launched in July 2020.

Tourists and residents can search and book a number of experiences listed on the app — flight deals to Moscow, train tickets to the interior across all regions, hotel stays, tours and restaurants — directly from their smartphones.

There are also options to reserve museum tickets, sign up for multi-day tours, go on self-guided walking routes or discover historical and cultural tips from the integrated travel magazine.

It’s probably not what the average traveler would expect from a country often stereotyped as an “evil empire” by the West from the Cold War days and one where politics transcend tourism, with accusations of meddling in U.S. elections and having questionable human rights practices.

But busting this stereotype through travel seems to be what this public-private sector digital app effort seems to aim for, by facilitating Russia’s accessibility to explorers in a post pandemic world, once borders are less restricted. Digitization and multilingual access to travel booking and information, in Russian, English and Spanish for now, could boost Russia’s tourism profile just as it sought to do so in 2019 and help it compete on a more global scale.

Now a year in since its launch, RUSSPASS counts over 3,000 travel suggestions, and has been used by over 1.3 million people, more than 90 percent of whom are Russian citizens, according to the Department of Information Technologies of Moscow. And it makes sense given the ongoing restrictions and the domestic tourism boom.

“Even before the pandemic, many travelers noted that they lacked quality online resources for comfortable travel,” said a representative from the Department of Information Technologies of Moscow in an email statement. “This problem has now been solved. Initially, the new project was designed for tourists from abroad, but after its launch it became evident that it should focus on domestic demand and thus support the industry.”

It’s an opportunity for Russia’s tourism businesses to reach and prepare for more consumers — 600 of them are already listed on the app so far — in what the government says is a boost amid a tourism downturn. Other partners of RUSSPASS include technology companies such as OneTwoTrip for booking hotels and tickets, ONELIA, for the multimodal itineraries, and Sberbank of Russia.

“Overall, RUSSPASS is encouraging the recovery of inner-city and domestic tourism by offering non-trivial itineraries and services. An important decision was to develop the service in different languages — this makes it possible to talk about travels in Russia and make them more attractive to foreign tourists who will be able to visit our country when restrictions on international travel are lifted in the world,” Moscow’s Department of Information Technologies told Skift.

In exchange for tourism businesses being listed on the app for free, the government’s agency agreements with stakeholders allows it to receive an agency fee on sales from tours, activities, and bookings.

“We are constantly working to simplify the usage and purchases. For example, we have made the purchase of activities a one-click action, circumventing the ‘shopping basket.”

Using a single tool for trip planning and organizing without having to consult dozens of websites is what the Russian government is banking on, as well as the app being a source of inspiration for future trips. The next step will be to study feedback from users and partners and introduce new services and solutions “to make RUSSPASS an online assistant in the pockets of tourists traveling in Russia,” according to the Russian government.

An Old School, Pesky Visa Process

In 2020, tourism and travel’s contribution to Russia’s gross domestic product amounted to $40.1 billion, a drop of 47 percent compared to 2019 levels, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, while international visitor spend tanked by 69.6 percent.

Domestic tourism has always dominated for Russia, but its push for the international market continues. And while RUSSPASS is a major leap for Russia’s travel industry and its future foreign visitors, there’s still one major snag: Russia’s complicated and costly tourist visa process.

To date, a U.S. citizen seeking a tourist visa to Russia must submit a completed print application form, pay a $160 fee by money order, and submit a photo as well as an “invitation letter to Russia from a host person or organization.”

The visa red tape was cut in January 2021 when the Russian Government launched a national e-visa process for 52 countries for the first time, including EU member states, India and China, while unsurprisingly excluding the U.S., UK and Canada. A major step forward in opening up for tourism, the Russian e-visa provided one-time tourist entry approval into Russia for 16 days, with a lighter and free application process and no required invitation letter.

But the e-visa option was paused that same month “in order to ensure state security, protect public health and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease.”

By contrast, a handful of destinations, including in Africa, made e-visa applications accessible through similar digital platforms to boost regional tourism recovery during Covid.

Over a year into the pandemic, Russia’s e-visa process remains suspended and the RUSSPASS doesn’t include an e-visa application option.

Embracing the e-visa, combined with RUSSPASS, could be a game changer for Russia’s still untapped tourism industry by drawing global travelers post pandemic who are in search of new experiences as well as remote, vast landscapes.

UPDATED: The story was updated to remove a sentence on future access of e-visa through RUSSPASS, per the RUSSPASS team which has informed Skift that the statement was not factually verified by public relations before it was provided to us. 

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Tags: coronavirus recovery, russia, tourism

Photo Credit: Visitors walking around the iconic Moscow Kremlin flowcomm / Flickr Commons

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