The roar of rising Russia
With Sochi hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014, Russia’s hotel scene is getting a makeover. (AFP/Getty Images)
There’s good news for international travellers heading to Russia: from Moscow to Samara, St Petersburg to Vladivostok, the country’s hotel scene is getting a makeover and new air routes are opening up across the country.
Until recently, the demand for global hotel brands and good air links mainly came from overseas business travellers, mainly Chinese and Europeans, and the business and leisure sector afforded by domestic oil and gas wealth.
But now it’s Sochi and soccer that are fuelling the demand. The Black Sea resort city of Sochi will host the Winter Olympic Games and the reinstated Russian Grand Prix in 2014, and Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018, with many hotel chains around the country investing in anticipation.
In 2011, InterContinental Hotels revealed a plan to quintuple its offering with a total of 100 hotels in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by 2020. A Best Western opened in the city of Tyumen, Siberia at the start of 2012, as did an Accor in the southeastern metropolis of Samara, while Hyatt is looking to open two hotels in Vladivostok by the end of 2012. Starwood is opening a hotel in Sochi in February 2014 and has an Aloft hotel debuting in St Petersburg by 2015. Expect to see less borsch and beetroot at the hotel buffet with everyone from the concierge to the butler honing their hospitality skills to international standards.
“Travellers are realising that Russia has opened up,” said Chris Watkins, managing director of tour operator Real Russia. “Each announcement of another grand development helps build awareness that the country is a key destination for business and tourism.”
And it’s not just hotels; Virgin Atlantic has a new code share with Russia's second largest carrier Transaero Airlines, which allows travellers to fly direct into Moscow from London on a Virgin issued ticket and connects US cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Orlando via London to Moscow. Virgin also plans to start its own flights to the capital in 2013. And Transaero Airlines, in cooperation with French airline Aigle Azur, launched scheduled flights between Paris and Moscow in July. On the domestic front, Aeroflot’s traffic and capacity figures have reached record levels this year. It is the country’s largest airline and flies to 33 domestic destinations.
Despite these developments, there are still some stumbling blocks for travellers to Russia.
“The transport infrastructure struggles in the provinces, and rail, as well as road standards, do not make independent land travel easy once you’re outside the typical routings of Moscow and St Petersburg,” said John Boulding, CEO of tour operator, Insight Vacations.
And the biggest issue for many travellers is visas -- both the cost and the procedure to obtain them. Every visa request needs to be confirmed by a government-approved incoming tour operator or visa service company, and for a five-day business visa it can cost a UK passport holder £50 and a US passport holder $127, plus handling charges -- while most other countries in Europe have no visa charges.