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Analysis & Opinion
28.06.10 Travel Without Borders
By Svetlana Kononova

Special to Russia Profile

The Visa-Free Travel Issue Was Not Resolved at the EU-Russia Summit in Rostov-on-Don and Some Doubt the EU Is Interested in Further Progress

Members of the European Parliament last week approved a resolution for visa-free travel with Russia, continuing the visa debate from the recent EU Summit in Rostov-on-Don. It does not mean Russians will be able to travel to Europe without visas immediately, but brings the solution of this problem closer at least in the long-term. “Members of Parliament endorse the commitment to the long-term aim of visa-free travel between the EU and Russia, based on a step-by-step approach, focused on substance and practical progress. Dialogue here should proceed in line with the visa facilitation process for Eastern Partnership countries,” a press release from EU Parliament said.

The Kremlin’s point of view on the visa issue and travel to EU countries is clear. “We should be moving to the main goal, namely, lifting the visa regime,” President Dmitry Medvedev said. “But the main thing is not to politicize the issue and not to be engaged in impracticable projects. We should face the truth and see how the whole European Union is ready to [solve] this problem.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that Russia would be ready to lift the visa regime even tomorrow, but that it should proceed on the basis of reciprocity. “I know of instances when a country has unilaterally offered a certain regime for travel or in some other sphere. But I think in this case, it would be fair to expect early reciprocity. This is particularly so since about 30 countries already have visa-free regimes with the EU, including countries where the crime situation is worse than in Russia,” he said. “There are several countries within the EU that are not yet prepared for it [a visa-free regime] for purely historical reasons,” Lavrov added.

Nonetheless several significant measures to simplify international interaction and tourism have recently been made. Firstly, Russians were given the opportunity to travel to Brazil without visas. Turkey recently announced that it had implemented a visa-free regime with Russia. Secondly, Israel cancelled the mutual tourist visa requirement for citizens of Ukraine last week, continuing its visa-friendly policy toward the CIS countries (Russian tourists have been able to travel to Israel without visas since October of 2008).

Thirdly, Russia and Poland have been discussing visa-free travel for near-border residents, and Moscow has included Murmansk on its list of ports that receive cruise-vessel tourists for up to three days without holding Russian visas. Undoubtedly, globalization requires the simplification of travel conditions and this process has already begun. For Russia, a country which was isolated by the Iron Curtain from the world for dozens of years, the opportunity to give its citizens the right to travel without restrictions is very important.

Analysts believe that visa-free regimes always have economic benefits for both sides. “Since the visa regime between Russia and Israel was lifted in 2009, the number of travelers to Russia from Israel increased by 42 percent and the number of Russian tourists in Israel rose by 39 percent, despite the financial crisis,” said Alexander Osin, the chief economist at Finam Management. “Taking this statistic into account, we can suppose that if the EU and Russia finally lifted the visa regime, the volume of business and tourist traffic between these countries would increase proportionally.”

The successful example of Israel is impressive. Since Russian citizens were granted the opportunity to travel there without visas, the country has received more than 100,000 additional tourists. This has had a positive impact on Israel’s economy. About 4,000 new jobs have been created and about $200 million injected into the economy, official statistics show. More than 220,000 Russian tourists have visited Israel over the last five months, the Israeli Tourism Ministry said in a statement. It is thought that the number of visiting Ukrainian citizens will more than double from 73,500 last year to 200,000 this year.

Visa-free regimes always increase the attractiveness of countries as tourist destinations, travel agencies point out. “Turkey is the most popular country for Russian tourists because of many factors, such as its good climate, a developed system of all-inclusive hotels and its visa friendly policy,” said Valeria Romanenkova, the associate director at the Hot Tours managing company.

Romanenkova believes that visa-free regimes have a positive impact on a country’s image. “Turkish visas are cheap ($20 per person) and they are very easy to receive at airports. But in peak season, in July and August, the need to get visas often creates long lines of tourists at airports. A visa-free regime makes travel for Russian tourists more straightforward,” Romanenkova said. “Moreover, canceling visa requirements means that travel for the average Russian family with parents and two children would become $80 cheaper. It may attract new travelers to Turkey who are interested in less expensive family holidays,” she added.

A visa-free regime with Brazil might also increase the interest of Russians in this country, travel agents say. “The visa requirements for Russian tourists were only cancelled in June, so it is too early to discuss the changes this has led to,” said Svetlana Pershina, a brand manager at Hot Tours. “The visa-free regime definitely will make this country more attractive. But Brazil will probably never become as popular as Turkey and Egypt because of the high cost of travel and the long-hour flight.”

EU countries are much less attractive destinations for Russian tourists because of the visa requirements in comparison with visa-convenient countries, travel agents say. “Only 15 percent of our clients are interested in EU destinations, according to recent statistics,” Romanenkova said. “Most Russian tourists do not plan holidays in advance. They go to a travel agent a week before their holiday, or in some cases – two or three days before the holiday. That’s why they choose Turkey, Egypt and other countries with simple visa mechanisms. Even for people who plan a holiday in advance, it is difficult to go to EU countries. They need to collect many documents, legally certify them, make applications to embassies and wait for the visa with no guarantee that the application will be successful. Many people find if very inconvenient and do not want to take the risk.”

But experts believe that even a simplified visa regime between Russia and EU would only really affect the tourism sphere, and not big business. “If the visa regime was lifted, it would hardly make significant changes to the volume of alternate investments,” Osin said. “But it could lead to the expansion of commodity exchange,” he added. “Back-to-back expenses of Russians and EU residents might rise by several dozen percent in this case.”

Yet economists are quite skeptical about the prospect of a visa-free regime between Russia and Western Europe. “The European Union is mostly interested in Russia as in a market for goods sales and imports of raw produce. This system already works perfectly without additional integration. So there are not enough important economic reasons to accelerate dialogue on the visa issue,” Osin said.
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