Bill to Let Ferry Tourists Spend 3 Days in St. Pete

Businesses and officials in St. Petersburg, Russia's most popular tourist destination, are lining up behind a proposed law that would allow ferry passengers to spend up to three days in the city without a visa.

The northern capital has made a big effort in recent years to attract more tourists, largely under the leadership of Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who has said she hopes to make the city an "open European capital."

Now, with added infrastructure and a much bigger tourism budget, St. Petersburg is ready to accommodate the additional visitors, potentially five times the current number, industry leaders and city officials say.

"One of our city's priorities is to attract foreign tourists. This law would allow tourists traveling by ferry to stop in St. Petersburg and look around without worrying about missing their next ferry," said Marina Yarovaya, a spokeswoman for Andrei Chernykh, chairman of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly's tourism committee.

The committee announced its support for the amendment last week, after the State Duma postponed a first reading of the bill until Sept. 5.

The delay was prompted by concerns about reciprocity and possible illegal migration, said Alexei Filimonov, an adviser to the Duma's Constitution and State Affairs Committee.

Most of St. Petersburg's tourists already arrive by water. Ferries represent an especially big opportunity on the Baltic Sea, said Igor Glukhov, director general of Inflot World Wide, Russia's biggest cruise operator.

Under a law in effect since 2003, the city currently accepts some 300,000 cruise passengers per year, who are allowed onshore without visas for 72 hours. If the rules were extended to ferry passengers, Glukhov said, the city would see at least a fivefold increase in tourism.

St. Petersburg's deputies in the Duma have attempted to get the "ferry amendment" passed before, but until recently, the city did not have the proper facilities to deal with the expected influx, said Sergei Korneyev, vice president of the Russian Tourist Industry Union.

In the past four years, however, the city has quadrupled its tourism budget, Korneyev said, and it has almost completed a new waterfront development project, Marine Facade, that could dock both ferries and cruise ships.

"Our infrastructure has finally caught up," Korneyev said. "St. Petersburg is fully ready."

The main obstacle now is the country's procedure for obtaining a tourist visa, said Yana Tkachuk, the director of Moscow-based tour agency Babylon Travel.

"Getting a visa is a difficult ... procedure that greatly slows down the development of our tourism," she said.

The government has made some exceptions to its visa regime, most notably for a May football match between Manchester United and Chelsea. St. Petersburg may seek to obtain such a dispensation for an international youth regatta next summer.

The city will host a leg of The Tall Ships' Races for the first time in July 2009 after heavy campaigning for the event from Matviyenko.