Businesses Profit From Visa-Free Experiment

Itar-TassAn English football fan shopping for souvenirs at a stand near Red Square. Sales took off this week when tens of thousands of fans descended on Moscow.
For British fans, Thursday might have been the hangover after the match the night before, but local businesses were happily tallying up bumper sales from this week's flood of football fans.

In central Moscow, fur hats sold like hot cakes, bars ran dry and rates for taxi rides went through the roof, as the decision by Russian authorities to waive visa requirements for fans with tickets paid dividends.

"I wish that they could have a football match like that every day," said Yusuf Chalyek, the Turkish manager of Kebab House bar on Ulitsa Arbat.

By 3 p.m. Wednesday the bar, packed with singing Manchester United fans, had already sold out of beer, and emergency supplies had to be brought in. Chalyek estimated that sales were up almost 40 percent for the day.

"They say that the Russians drink a lot, but the English drink even more," he said.

Reports in the national media put the economic windfall for the capital's tourism and hospitality industry at up to $70 million.

Official figures from the British Home Office put the number of British fans who came at 28,000, said Alexander Djordjadze, deputy project leader of the Champions League final. Given that the stadium was packed to its 69,500-person capacity, however, he said official figures might be on the low side.

Many British fans came to Moscow via Poland and Estonia, making them more difficult to track than the thousands who came on chartered flights.


Misha Japaridze / AP
A Chelsea fan posing on Red Square with cadets from the Interior Ministry's police academy, who were recruited to help out for their English-language skills.
Industry employees from hoteliers to hat sellers praised the unprecedented decision to suspend the complicated visa regime for visiting fans. Their only criticism was that the decision wasn't permanent.

Anatoly Koklenkov makes his living as a Lenin impersonator, posing for photos on Red Square, alongside a fake Stalin and several tsars. He favors lifting the visa regime permanently, saying the last few days have been the best of his 14-year career.

"As far as I'm concerned, it would be a great thing if we had it," said the pro-commerce look-alike of the founder of the proletarian revolution.

"People should be allowed to come and go as often as they like," Koklenkov said. "It's great for business, because they buy things here and we buy things there. All of their bags were full!"

A Tsar Nicholas II impersonator waving a Russian tricolor nearby heartily seconded his assessment.

"Of course it would be better for us if they let people in without visas all the time," said Marina Bogdanova, 32, who had been selling fans a steady stream of fur hats on Arbat for 300 rubles a pop.

Georgiy Dimachenko, 32, has worked on Red Square for 10 years, selling souvenirs ranging from KGB-embossed flasks to traditional Russian dolls. British fans were unlike other visitors, he said, just by the sheer volume of business they generated.


Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Manchester United nesting dolls being offered for sale near Red Square.
"The number of items that they bought was just great," Dimachenko said.

And it wasn't just the street vendors who profited. Almost all the city's estimated 35,000 hotel rooms were booked up months in advance, forcing fans to seek refuge on river cruise ships or simply to stay out all night.

At the National Hotel on Tverskaya Ulitsa, clerk Alexander Gulman handled the swirl of activity surrounding his desk with grace. All of the hotel's 216 rooms were full, he said, while juggling two telephone receivers and handing out orders to his co-workers.

"It was great for business but way too busy," he said with a smile.

Just round the corner, Silver's, an Irish pub popular with expats, was still crammed with celebrating fans at noon on Thursday.

The bar had ordered 10 extra kegs of beer to serve the notoriously hard-drinking fans, said manager Lira Tsvetinskaya. This meant that they had managed to stave off almost all problems.

"Well, they're singing a lot," she said with a smile, "but that's not really a problem for us."

Around the stadium ahead of kickoff Wednesday evening, enterprising locals agreed that the British fans didn't live up to their terrifying reputation.

"They seemed like good lads," said pensioner Ina Nemtsova as she sold sunflower seeds outside the stadium. "Of course, they're emotional. So are Russian fans at events like these."

Street vendor Irina Detsenko, 16, was equally charmed by fans nearing the stadium. "I thought they'd be more aggressive," Detsenko said, adding, "They are good singers."

And as they trickled back onto the streets Thursday, British fans said the chance to visit Russia had dispelled some of the scare stories they had heard about Moscow, although some spoke of minor "skirmishes" with local fans.

"I've enjoyed Moscow and would definitely come back if we draw a Russian team in next season' s competition — and all my mates said the same," Manchester United fan Stuart Atkins, 17, said as he nursed a midday beer on Arbat.

"The prices have been no worse than in central London — although the taxi drivers have been trying to rip us off," Atkins said.

Atkins said he had just been offered a 1,000 ruble taxi ride to the Arbat from Smolenskaya metro station — which is also on Arbat.