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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Faster Visas Off to a Slow Start

ST. PETERSBURG -- The initial results of an experimental program of fast-track 72-hour visas that was launched Feb. 1 have been disappointing, say tour operators dealing with the new regulations.

Just 34 tourists received 72-hour visas in St. Petersburg during the first month of the program, while only one such visa was issued in Moscow and none in Kaliningrad, according to the federal government's tourism department. The program was started on the initiative of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who was hoping that it would increase the flow of tourists from Scandinavian countries, especially Finland, wanting to visit the city for a few days, said Alexander Sorokin, head of the tourism department of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry in Moscow.

However, according to the City Hall tourism committee, not a single tourist from Finland has yet applied for a fast-track visa. So far, only citizens from Germany, Sweden, France and Switzerland have applied.

According to the experimental program, citizens of Schengen countries, Britain, Switzerland and Japan who intend to visit Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kaliningrad for less than 72 hours can apply to an authorized tour operator two days before arrival and receive their visas at one of six authorized entry points, including Pulkovo International Airport and Sheremetyevo Airport.

Oleg Davtyan, deputy head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Foreign Ministry, said the program "is working fine, as it should considering that it is an experiment."

Local tour operators, however, were not so generous, arguing that the well-intentioned experiment is being strangled by those charged with implementing it.

"I have a lot of work, but this has nothing to do with the [72-hour] visas. We didn't have a single application last month," said Lyubov Sofyan, who is responsible for visa processing at Nordic Travel, a tour agency.

"Nobody wants to deal with the amount of paperwork that we have to process according to the rules [issued by the Foreign Ministry]," Sofyan added.

Local tourism officials emphasized that more must be done to promote the new program abroad.

"There is still not enough information about this. But we are trying to promote this at all the tourism exhibitions abroad," said Vladimir Kovalyov of the tourism committee.

Sofyan, though, said that she had attended one such exhibition in Italy last month and was less than impressed. She said the Foreign Ministry's display was hidden away and that the representative was "unhappy and reticent."

"The display was located somewhere behind a corner and was very hard to find," she said.

Tour operators said the procedures for applying for visas that were laid out by the Foreign Ministry in January are not realistic and the $35 fee does not cover the actual cost of the process. Operators said it takes at least four days for the Foreign Ministry to process all the documents, not 48 hours, as the ministry planned.

They also stated that the cost of processing each visa is as much as $60. They noted that each of the 13 local tourism operators authorized to participate in the program have to pay $100 each month to the City Hall tourism committee for a committee employee who meets arriving tourists at the airport and assists them in getting their visas.

"The timeframe and cost now are very close to those that tourists would have processing ordinary visas in consulates. The Foreign Ministry has created so many obstacles that the companies just don't want to deal with this," a federal government official said by telephone Monday from Moscow. "Take Sheremetyevo Airport, for instance. Tourists arrive at the hall for transit travelers, and the consular department is located in a [completely] different part of the airport. So they have to wait until an airport employee calls the [consular] department and, if somebody happens to be there, then the tourist is lucky. Welcome to Russia," he said.