Just as the summer tourist season was drawing to a close this September, the Russian government made a surprise decision to introduce free electronic visas to foreign visitors entering St. Petersburg.
Starting on Tuesday (October 1), citizens of 53 countries (full list here) can apply online for a free visa four days ahead of visiting St. Petersburg. Many EU countries are on the list, but not Britain, the United States, or Canada.
The visa does not require the usual invitations or hotel bookings, and can be simply printed at home. Tourists and business travelers alike can take advantage of the new offer.
This follows a similar decision in July for visiting Kaliningrad.
The snap-visa program began in the distant Far East, when electronic visas were introduced in 2017 for citizens of 18 countries, but the destination did not prove extremely popular: over the past two years, just 100,000 tourists entered the region on an electronic visa.
One caveat: visitors must enter the country via the airport or designated auto, pedestrian and port border points, the service does not yet function for rail travelers.
Electronic visas are valid for 30 days, and, once in Russia, visitors can stay for eight days. The program is reportedly to be expanded to Moscow and other parts of Russia by 2021, and Russia is reportedly in talks to add other countries to the list.
St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport is already looking into new air routes with European low-cost airlines like Wizz Air, Easyjet and Ryanair, which would likely pull hundreds of thousands weekend travelers to Russia's second biggest city.
The average foreign tourist spends R35,000 (over $500) in St. Petersburg during a short 1-3 day visit, Governor Alexander Beglov told President Putin in July, when he asked that the measure be expedited.
The point of the initiative is to make sure the tourist experience in Russia "is full of emotions and comfortable services, which will make tourists not only return in the future, but also help change stereotypes about Russia," said Deputy Economy Minister Sergei Galkin earlier this year.
Unfortunately, a tourism influx can also backfire. This week, the historic town of Tsarskoye Selo, south of St. Petersburg, was overrun by Chinese tourists to the point of collapse: Russian tourists could not access the sights and the Culture Ministry rang the alarm. The museum in Tsarskoye Selo promised to introduce online tickets to help avoid a repeat of the four-hour waits in line to see the palace.
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