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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Regional Service, Without the Pain

In Nikolai Gogol's comedy "The Inspector General," an impecunious traveler staying in a provincial inn is mistaken for an important government official who has come to check up on the townspeople. As a result, the local dignitaries roll out the red carpet for him, with five-star treatment all the way, not realizing that the real inspector has yet to arrive.

Such first-class service may not yet be the norm for foreign businessmen venturing out to Russia's regions, but thanks to improvements in regional hotels and airports, more attention to customer service and the expansion of homegrown and international hotel chains across the country, business travelers need not feel like unwanted intruders.

"Services for the business traveler have improved dramatically in recent years, customer service has improved a lot -- as so has the willingness to help," said Garry Fowler, co-chairman of the IT committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, who first came to Moscow in 1992.

Paul McMorran, who is corporate HR director at TNK-BP and has been based in Russia since 1999, agreed that service had gotten a whole lot better. To take two examples, he cites more considerate and helpful staff on domestic airlines and at regional airports, and the improved quality of regional hotels. "It has improved simply because of rising expectations among business travelers generally, as well as larger numbers of expatriate businesspeople," McMorran said.

But if the good news is better service and facilities, the bureaucracy involved in traveling around the country often calls to mind some of the more irritating aspects of life in a Gogol farce.

In particular, the hassles for foreigners coming to Russia on commercial visas, particularly with regard to registration, have many businesspeople and travel professionals less than amused.

Barry Martin, head of the Russia House travel agency, started bringing Britons to Russia 30 years ago. He said bureaucracy remains an irritating puzzle.

"The whole messy system and inept rules for registration could have been written by Gogol to provide the militia with their pension fund," Martin said.

Moscow's visa and passport department recently caused widespread confusion among commercial visa holders by putting residency permit stamps on migration cards, rather than in their passports. The practice would have required business travelers to register each time they entered the country, but appeals from the AmCham and the Association of European Businesses resulted in it being reversed earlier this month.

Businessmen outside Moscow have not been so lucky, however, with many complaining that for several months they have had to reregister every time they enter the country.

For hotel guests, registration is usually completed in a matter of hours, but for those not staying in a hotel, getting a registration stamp from the local visa and passport department can take up to 10 working days. And while a traveler waits for the stamp to come through, explaining its absence to an inquisitive policeman can be a challenge.

The lack of clarity about registration "creates rumors and stories, and people think it is more difficult to come to Russia. It reinforces the stereotype that this is a difficult place to do business in," said Helen Lloyd of TMI Consultancy, a market research company.

Faced with these difficulties, many businessmen on a short visit opt for tourist visas, which are easier to obtain.

"There is no law against businessmen traveling on a tourist visa, but if you had a problem and got into trouble, it would be another bad mark on the sheet," Martin said. Tourist visas, however, are the only option for businessmen coming from many countries, as agencies do not offer support for commercial visas for travelers born in Asia, Africa, China, the Middle East or Mexico, Martin said.

Apart from negotiating visa and registration hassles, choosing a hotel in an unfamiliar region can be tricky without good advice from a reliable travel agent, said Oleg Madudov, director of the Business Travel Agencies Association.

"There are no travel operators that are active in all 89 regions of Russia. Booking a hotel somewhere in the regions, some travel agents rely on a photo. As a result, it can be a lucky dip."

Madudov recalled how an executive from a large international firm was recommended a hotel in Novosibirsk that looked fine on the Internet but turned out to be a nightmare. "He complained about cockroaches larger than in Madagascar, and the hot water was only on between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.," Madudov said.

Thankfully, such horror stories are now fewer than some years ago, mainly due to the quality mid-range hotels catering to business travelers springing up all over the country.

For AmCham's Fowler, the problem for business travelers in Russia is now not a lack of facilities but one of choice. "Coming here in 1992, it was even difficult to find a place to stay and eat," he said. "I was eating at McDonalds and the Irish Bar. Now it's decision, decision, decision -- where to go?"