by Geneva Observer

 

Unfortunately I am not one of the lucky few whose mother dropped them on a favored part of the planet blessed with visa free travel to Russia.

The two states that makes claim to me have not yet found it in their interest to go forth and negotiate anything but the most annoying terms to visit. I can choose which passport I go with to the consulate, photo, multi-page application form in hand. I know I am on the path to enlightenment as I pull out my wallet to pay the fees.

I was simply not talented enough to have been able to make the Eurovision Song contest in 2009 or the International Tchaikovsky Competition of 2015 to travel visa free. My singing and humming will probably continue to be confined to the shower encouraged only occasionally by a stiff scrub-brushing by my dearest, which unfortunately does not happen often enough to encourage me to even start singing lessons.

There simply is no point in flying to the Vladivostok Eastern Economic Forum to get a visa free entry. Approaching the age of 60, I simply am surpassed by far better sportsmen for the Olympics, and the Winter Olympic event tickets were unobtainable to most people to avoid the visa. Even if there were an event for my age group, I will pass on doping myself like Mr. Armstrong did. World Cup soccer tickets are not going to lure me for a visa free trip this time.

I have to face it. With my Canadian passport Ms. Freeland could only negotiate a visa for me at the modest price of 90 CHF. The local consulate no longer takes applications directly. I need to pass through one of several competing agencies. In my case, add another 28 CHF. I searched on the local Russian consulate web-site for the application form, where I find out I need an invitation from an approved agency to issue me a hotel voucher. Natalie makes the arrangements, and a one page document, in Russian arrives three days later to my email in-box. That will be 3000 RUB (about 50 CHF), but it can be only for three weeks otherwise I need to pay the hotel in advance for a full month. I change the visa application to be for only three weeks, as getting another voucher is prohibitive in time and money. I initialize the change, saddened realizing I will have to trim my travel plans by seven days.

In Geneva, I only needed to supply one colorful, sober, unsmiling passport photo, which I was able to do using a local photo auto-mat. It makes six photos for ten CHF. I now have some spare pictures for friends, family, or my next visa.

The friendly young woman behind the visa service agency counter turned the pages back to front of  my passport, then stopped at the first page, scrutinizing closely the expiry date of my passport. She then said I should immediately demand a new passport. Mine had another six months left. It had to be valid at least three months after the end of the applied visa period. In contrast, my son wants to visit New York. The US is demanding his Swiss passport be at least issued six months prior to his trip. This means a five year passport is only useful for four years and three months at worst and you will be deprived of it while  visas are being processed.

The first time I applied for a visa, the hotel confirmation used information from my Swiss permanent residency permit where it should have been information from my passport. At the time, my reading the Cyrillic alphabet was not even good enough to read a STOP sign. My mistake not to have asked for help, to have someone else check it earlier. The agent said I had to get a corrected voucher. Shock and panic. Would I get a visa in time for my departure?  I ended paying

twice as much for the visa to have a three day express service. I was 180 CHF out of pocket and still had not left Switzerland. My neighbors might prefer to smoke a joint and take a trip without leaving home (we just legalized smoking pot). I was persistent. There was a lovely lady waiting for me.

Silvio Bernasconi’s 2009 initiative for visa free travel for EU member citizens remains unfulfilled, suspended after the Crimea, like a spurned lover quit the Ukraine and rejoined the Russian Federation.

Ms. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, supporter of post-putsch neo-Nazis in Ukraine, has made Canada’s passport-holders subject to the most demands for documentation. Canada drags its feet handling Russian visa requests taking weeks to approve them, with a high refusal rate. Russia reciprocates with similar requirements, but at least I was treated fairly and expeditiously. This led to only 10’888 Canadians being issued visas to Russia in 2015.

If you were born in South Africa, or most of Latin America, as of March 30th, 2017 you can travel to Russia visa free for up to 90 days. Bravo, Mr. Lavrov!

Russia requires visa applications to be submitted in person to visa processing centers instead of directly to the consular section. Costs differ per administration center.

It may be in Russia’s interest to drop its visa reciprocity policy.

The increase in visitors would be a great way of attacking Russophobia.

Today’s visa constraints dissuade anyone from making a short trip to Moscow or St. Petersburg. It is almost cheaper for Russians and Swiss residents to meet in Marrakesh rather than having to get reciprocal visas. There is no possibility to make a spur of the moment trip to visit family, friends or just to go for shopping or in my case dental appointment.

France, the global tourism leader, a country with 66.6 million population in 2016,

had 83 million tourists in 2016

That is 1.25 tourists per inhabitant.

The number of arrivals in 2014 were as follows:

France        83,767,000

United Kingdom  32,613,000

Russia              32,421,000

Thailand    24,810,000

For a graphic comparison see

It is hard to understand an island like the UK has more arrivals than the world’s largest country. With Crimea, Russia can now challenge France for wines and vineyards.

Russia can capitalize on tourism by dropping visa requirements while Russo-phobic countries shoot themselves in the foot. It is hard to estimate the number of potential travelers who have chosen other options rather than visit Russia. On the way back from Moscow we saw a majority of people at the passport control were of Chinese origin, beneficiaries of visa free accredited tour groups.

Russia, being the country with the largest landmass, part of both Europe and Asia offers many unique and exciting adventures and should take its place as a leading tourist destination. The signage at Moscow’s three international airports are already in Russian, English and Chinese.

It is time for Russia to make the next move.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world