Travel

Russia hatches plan to become top tourist draw

It is hoping to ride on the positive effect of the World Cup, expand its variety of tours and introduce free electronic visas

MOSCOW : Fancy a tank ride in the snow, then a night in a tsarist-era palace?

With ambitious plans to become one of the world's top 10 travel destinations, Russia is offering tours off the beaten track and lifting visa restrictions to attract more visitors.

A year after it hosted the World Cup, the ex-Soviet country is looking for ways to attract international visitors with the goal of more than doubling tourism revenues to US$25 billion (S$34 billion) by 2035.

"Young people will now be able to see Russia in a way their parents could not," said Ms Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia.

Russia's rich cultural heritage and its spectacular scenery ranging from subtropical Black Sea resorts to Siberia's Lake Baikal and the volcanoes of Kamchatka make the country an obvious draw for visitors.

But the difficulty of obtaining visas, a lack of contemporary-style accommodation and transport links outside the main cities still put off many visitors.

Nearly 25 million tourists visited Russia last year, making it the world's 16th most popular destination, according to the World Tourism Organisation. They largely came from the ex-Soviet bloc and China.

During last summer's World Cup, Russia offered visa-free entry for international fans and Ms Lomidze said the tourism sector had hoped for a substantial boost from the tournament played in 11 Russian cities.

"But the effect of the World Cup was practically reduced to zero by the eternal problems with visas," she said.

Apparently aware of the problem, President Vladimir Putin has ordered the government to introduce electronic visas, which are free of charge and issued quickly, for citizens of a number of countries.

Electronic visas will come into force in October for stays of up to eight days in the former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg and the surrounding region, though Russia has not yet said which countries' citizens can apply.

Tour operators are seeking to diversify, luring visitors with Arctic tours featuring reindeer herders, rides in Soviet-era tanks or a night at a palace that belonged to Peter the Great.

But Russia as a whole spends only €1 million (S$1.5 million) a year on promoting itself to visitors, according to estimates from the Association of Tour Operators of Russia.

The country needs to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure and new facilities for travellers, but equally crucial is a major publicity campaign to improve its image tarnished by the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and spying scandals, experts said.

"First and foremost, the Soviet Union's draw was in its sense of forbiddenness, a bit like North Korea now," said Mr Andrei Sivitsky, deputy director at Intourist, which was founded 90 years ago as the state travel agency. - AFP

TOURISM & TRAVEL