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
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.