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Russia: A country on the up, slowly…

Russia: A country on the up, slowly…

Over the next decade Russia will play host to two of the biggest sporting events on the international calendar, with Sochi welcoming the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the FIFA World Cup arriving in 2018.

Hundreds of thousands of international visitors will arrive in the country for the first time, with many in for a rude awakening.

While Russia is ostensibly open to international tourism it is yet to wholeheartedly embrace the endeavour, with even the capital Moscow proving a challenging destination for visitors.

Bewildered guests are unceremoniously dumped outside one of the three airports in the city, at the mercy of the taxi mafia as they attempt to make an onward journey, with little or no official information on offer.

Once in the city centre, hotels are split between egregiously expensive international chains and the threadbare lower end properties offered by domestic operators. A dearth of mid-range properties remains a concern, years after it was first acknowledged.

Problems for visitors are also in evidence even before departure, with the nitpicking visa application – which must be presented by hand in London, with a ream of accompanying documents – acting as a disincentive to visit for many travellers.

Russia just seems disinterested in international tourism. There is not even a tourist information centre in the capital.

These are all concerns which will have to be overcome if Russia is to successfully host both the Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup.

The famous Trans-Siberian Railway is among the top attraction in Russia

Slow Change

However, things are changing. Slowly.

In a recent speech prime minister Vladimir Putin tacitly acknowledged Russia had fallen behind international rivals when it came to tourism; outlining plans to improve the offering.

Airports were first on the agenda, with the all-powerful Putin outlining a plan to merge, renovate and privatise two major airports in Moscow.

Under the proposals the Russian state will pay up to $1.7 billion for the 25 per cent of Vnukovo Airport it does not already own, eventually merging it with Sheremetyevo Airport.

It is hoped the new entity will challenge privately-owned Domodedovo Airport, creating competition in the sector, boosting the experience offered to international guests.

This would be a start, with international travellers greeted on arrival by facilities becoming of a potential global superpower.

Plans have also been outlined by government officials to offer visa free travel to Russia during the FIFA World Cup, while ticket holders would also have access to free transfers around the country during the tournament.

These are signs the Russian government is taking its responsibilities in this area more seriously.

The FIFA World Cup will arrive in Russia in 2018

Holidays in Russia

Indeed, turning Russia into an attractive tourist destination for European visitors is not impossible.

Over 15 million visitors already arrive each year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, placing the country fifteenth in the world. However, this is well behind France, which attracts over 60 million visitors annually and leads the world in terms of international arrivals.

Many are drawn to Russia by the chance to travel the Golden Ring of ancient cities – including Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Suzdal - as well cruises on the Volga or take a trip on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway.

Some 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites are also on offer.

Russia is also well connected to the outside world. A host of carriers – including Germanwings - fly into Moscow, while St Petersburg and a number of regional centres are also on offer.

Attractions, including the Kremlin, can also compete with those on offer anywhere in the world.

Wider Problems

However, there are also wider problems.

Terrorism remains a concern, as it does in many destinations, with separatists from the Caucasus recently killing 35 at Domodedovo Airport. Strikes on the sprawling Metro system have also been a feature of recent years.

As the situation in the region deteriorates, further attacks cannot be ruled out.

The British Foreign Office continues to warm against travel to areas of the country – principally in the North Caucasus – while also warning of a “high level” threat of terrorism.

German Wings offers European visitors easy access to Russia

Turning Point

With all this in mind, Sochi 2014 could be a real turning point for Russia.

If concerns over visas, prices and security can be addressed, Russia will step up to its rightful position on the international stage.

But it will take more than just grand gestures such as the Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup to revolutionise the country’s offering.

The local tourism sector needs a complete reappraisal, only then can the country truly benefit from its wealth of national treasures.

German Wings

Taking the strain, Germanwings flies to Moscow three times a week from London Stansted, via either Stuttgart or Hannover from around £99 each way including taxes and fees.

For details, visit Germanwings or call 0906 294 1918.

Germanwings is one of Europe’s most successful low-cost airlines, offering flights at low prices to over 75 destinations around Europe.

The low-cost airline operates a young fleet currently consisting of 30 jets of the type Airbus A319.