Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Officials: AIDS Bill Crippling Tourism

Tourism officials said Friday that a draft law which would force foreigners coming to Russia to be tested for AIDS has already dealt a huge blow to the country's tourist trade, even as prospects for the bill's final passage appeared to be fading.

"We faced a flood of cancellations of trips to Russia straight after parliament started debating the law," Sergei Shpilko, deputy head of the State Committee for sports and tourism, told a news conference, Reuters reported.

"The situation is rather dramatic and unless something is done about it foreign tourism to Russia may effectively come to a halt next year," he said.

The AIDS bill, which was approved by the State Duma Nov. 11, still requires the approval of the Federation Council and of President Boris Yeltsin to become law.

But Vladimir Shumeiko, Chairman of the Federation Council, indicated Friday that the bill was too expensive to enforce and that parliament's upper house would not approve it. Instead, the chamber is likely to pass the AIDS bill directly on for President Boris Yeltsin's signature.

Together with some backpedalling from the bill's sponsors in the Duma Friday and determined opposition from the Health Ministry, this cast some doubt over whether the bill would ever become law in its present form. Publicity surrounding the bill's drastic measures already appears to have caused tourists to cancel their holidays to Russia in droves, however.

Anatoly Yaroshin, head of Russia's biggest tourist company AO Intourist, said he expected foreign tourism to Russia to shrink by at least 40 percent in 1995, Reuters reported.

He said cancellations of trips to Russia were already coming in at an even higher rate for the November to January period, but gave no details.

Shpilko stressed that either the Federation Council or Yeltsin could still reject the draft or make amendments.

"But the debates were heralded around the world by mass media and it will be very difficult to neutralize the damage that has already been done," he said.

The draft law would impose obligatory AIDS checks in Russia on all foreigners crossing the borders, whether they were weekend tourists or permanent residents. Any foreigner refusing to be tested or found to be infected with the disease would be deported.

The State Duma's Health Care Committee chairwoman, Bella Denisenko, sought Friday to allay the foreign community's concern about the bill, saying it was actually softer than the press portrayed it.

Health Ministry officials have said the bill would be impossible to implement, while Itar-Tass quoted Shumeiko as saying it would cost 15 billion rubles (about $5 million), which is not covered by the proposed 1995 budget.

Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of an independent center for AIDS prevention who was among the authors of the initial version of the draft, said it had never been meant to save Russia from an epidemic of the disease.

"We have planned to introduce checks for those who come to Russia for a long period of time -- to study or work -- something most other countries already did," he said, Reuters reported.

"The idea had nothing to do with prevention of AIDS and was prompted by economic considerations," he added. "If we let people infected with the AIDS virus come for long, we will have to spend money on their medical treatment. It's too expensive."

But Yaroshin countered that the law, if adopted, would contribute to unemployment in Russia. He said about five million foreigners -- tourists and businessmen -- use the country's hotels, restaurants, cars and other services.

Denisenko, responding to charges that the obligatory testing requirement would drive away foreign investors, said: "We won't need any investment if an epidemic flares up."

But, in the face of harsh criticism from the press and government officials, including Health Minister Eduard Nechayev, Denisenko said she favored a softer approach to mandatory testing than that prescribed by the law.

She said she only wanted foreigners to come to Russia equipped with certificates that said they were not carrying HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. According to Denisenko, the drafters of the bill never intended for all foreigners to be tested inside Russia, as it effectively does.

Besides, she said, she only favored the testing of foreigners coming to Russia to work or study, though the final version included the testing of all visitors at the request of some Duma deputies.

Despite her efforts to convey the message that the law was essentially harmless, Denisenko fiercely defended the concept of foreigners being the main source of AIDS. Asked to explain what difference it made if a foreigner was coming to Russia as a tourist or as a student, she replied that there was a "significant difference."

"There is a direct mathematical dependence between the length of time a foreigner spends here and the number of times he has intercourse," she said.

The president's office was not making any predictions Friday as to whether Yeltsin would approve the bill."I think you are going to have to wait," a presidential spokesman said. "When he signs it or doesn't sign it, then we'll know how he feels."