MANILA -- Russia started offering free electronic visas on arrival to citizens of 53 countries including the Philippines, hoping to spur tourism while shaking off the villainous image from Western films.
The e-visas, issued from Oct. 1, cover the Leningrad region and the ancient port city of St. Petersburg, which boasts of grand canals, golden-spired cathedrals, sprawling parks, and palaces that are home to a treasure trove of art.
“We believe that tourists from all over the world who visit our country will simply not find anything like the image of Russia promoted by Hollywood,” Natalia Linovitskaya, press secretary of the Embassy of the Russian Federation, told ABS-CBN News.
“This has already happened when millions of football fans came to Russia last year [for the FIFA World Cup] to discover that their media outlets were openly lying to them. Instead, tourists from the Philippines will find that we have a lot in common,” she added.
The pivot to e-visas are expected to nearly triple tourism revenue to $29 billion by 2035, which will make Russia the 10th top tourist destination from 16th currently, Deputy Economy Minister Sergey Galkin was quoted as saying by Bloomberg last week.
Here are some tips for globetrotters whose bucket list includes St. Petersburg, the Romanov dynasty’s showcase capital and Russia’s first modern city.
APPLYING FOR AN E-VISA
E-visa applicants are only required to fill up a form on the Russian Ministry of Affairs website, without needing to appear at the consular office or submit invitations, hotel booking confirmations or any other document, said Vice Consul in Manila, Denis Karenin.
E-visas permit a stay of up to 8 days, from midnight of the day of entry, instead of the actual time of passage through passport control, he said.
Travelers can extend their stay in Russia by availing a separate e-visa for a maximum of 8 days of stay in Kaliningrad Oblast region, which is about a day’s travel away from St. Petersburg by train, said Karenin.
Applicants will be notified of the e-visa grant within 4 days of application, according to the Ministry of Affairs website.
There are no direct flights between Manila and St. Petersburg, the hometown of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A typical flight to Russia’s artistic center will take 19 hours, including a stopover in Dubai, Qatar, China or South Korea, said ABS-CBN’s correspondent in Russia, Niel Caburnay Tero.
Round trip tickets usually cost around P40,000, said Linovitskaya.
One can compare airfare rates with mobile app Skyscanner, said journalist and frequent traveler Miranda De Quiros.
To compare hotel rates, use mobile apps Agoda, Expedia, Trivago, Expedia, Hotels.com and Booking.com, and consult website Trip Advisor for actual photos and reviews of hotels, said De Quiros, who visited Moscow last year.
Most apps, she said, give users “points” that translate to discounts in their next bookings. One can also get discounts from credit card promos and membership programs offered by hotel chains, said De Quiros.
One can get hotel rooms for as low as P2,000 per night in St. Petersburg, said Linovitskaya.
Travelers can also try to get free accommodations from locals through website couchsurfing.com, suggested ABS-CBN’s Tero.
Russian SIM cards that cost around $5 or P250 come with 15 GB of mobile internet, and unlimited calls and texts to Russian landline and mobile numbers, Tero said.
Heavier Internet users can opt for pocket WiFi from Smart, which costs around P5,000 for 10 days, without data cap, said De Quiros.
LANGUAGE BARRIER, PERCEIVED HIGH COSTS
Potential travelers hesitate to visit Russia due to the language barrier, adverse geopolitical image and a misconcention that it is too far and too expensive, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group.
St. Petersburg is a “cultural center” and its locals are hospitable “like Filipinos” said the Embassy’s Karenin.
Russians are “very eager to help,” De Quiros said, recalling how locals asked her where she needed to go as she tried to figure out Moscow's subway map.
Tero converses with Russians who are not proficient in English through Google Translate.
De Quiros said the cost of goods in Russia is also close to those in the Philippines, compared to other European countries, where a cup of coffee for example, would cost 1.5 times more.
Travelers can save money by eating at kiosks and food parks, she said. One should also try washing down meals with beer at fastfood restaurants.
Getting around the city is also convenient and cheap using the subway, where trains arrive every 3 minutes or so and where stations feature intricate murals and artwork.
ST. PETERSBURG’S SIGHTS
Karenin suggested visiting St. Petersburg during the “White Nights” season, when the city celebrates nearly round-the-clock daylight after months of cold.
The 80 or so “White Nights” are marked with beach parties; opera and ballet performances; an hour-long fireworks display during “Scarlet Sails,” a city wide high-school graduation party; and gatherings along the banks of the Neva River to watch the 4 main drawbridges, all illuminated, rise to a 90-degree angle to allow barges to pass, according to the New York Times.
Filipinos, said Karenin, should also try ice-skiing in St. Petersburg during winter and surfing in its beaches.
The website Visit Petersburg, developed by the city government and local travel agencies, provides an official guide to the city, said Linovitskaya.
THE FUTURE OF E-VISA
Bloomberg reported that the rest of the Russian Federation will also offer e-visas on Jan. 1, 2021, with a special app that will make the process even simpler, while keeping the fee below $50.
The embassy has “no official information” about this, said Linovitskaya.