Moscow or Bust
Russia—a hulking mass of nature, history, and people—can be understood through St. Petersburg’s recent explosion of modernism amid maintenance of its deep historical roots, all in front of the colorful backdrop that is St. Basil’s Cathedral. However, amongst growing concerns surrounding COVID-19 and lack of vaccinations, as well as consistent unrest and fears of attacks on benign sightseers, the attraction to Russia wanes among travelers. While the Russian people come out of some of their own travel bans, despite remaining tensions with many other countries, what does tourism look like for Russia, and what will it look like in the future?
On August 9th of this year, Russian tourists boarded the first flight to depart from Moscow to an Egyptian destination in six years, the result of a travel ban after a jihadist bombed an Egyptian passenger plane, killing all 224 passengers. Similarly, Israel recently removed Russia, amongst a slew of other countries, from a listing of prohibited locations for concerns surrounding COVID-19. Despite Russia’s own expansion of travel and a handful of other countries allowing travel to Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom—number one and four, respectively, with regards to where most of the world’s tourists originate—both have strict policies against traveling to Russia, especially now. The US Department of State’s website contains a distinct four categories of ratings for foreign countries; “Exercise normal precaution”, “Exercise increased precaution”, “Reconsider travel”, and “Do not travel”. In a glaring bold and red text, Russia has been given the ‘Scarlet Letter’, advising US citizens not to travel to Russia entirely. The UK also advises against all travel to locations on Russia’s border but has barred a larger region of Russia where British citizens have been advised against all but essential travel. In 2015 Russia reached its peak for modern tourism, boasting 33.7 million tourist arrivals, but since then the numbers have steadily declined. The last most recent data point recorded by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), from 2019, indicates a drop to 24.6 million right before the impact of COVID-19.
Despite Russia’s seemingly imminent decline from traveler’s favor, the most recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo helped to relay another narrative altogether. Russian athletes earned a total of 71 medals and came in fifth overall across competing countries, falling just short of the international podium in terms of total medals. Having broken its own national record, set during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the talent and effort of its athletes have once again brought Russia to the international forefront.
A drastically different, yet related aspect of Russian allure lies with the fact that Russian exports of mineral fuels (oils and distillation products) and iron/steel in 2019 were estimated at individual values of $221.69 and $18.20 billion, respectively. Providing crucial goods and products to Europe and the Americas, totaling together over 50% of Russian GDP, may aid in turning Russia’s sputtering tourism issue into a booming source of economy, or at the very least, replace it. Moreover, the effort to modernize Russian cities, an effort started in 2011, remains popular with the Russian people, and the government hopes, also to travelers. Sinking nearly $1.5 billion a year towards the refurbishment of Russian cities and infrastructure benefits small towns like Torzhok, which crumbles on the banks of the Tvertsa river. This town, once popular with some travelers for its involvement with the “medieval Novgorod republic”, was finally granted comfortable trains with WIFI and food cars in 2019, after much lobbying from locals, bringing the soviet-era groundwork back into line with the 21st century.
As many individuals and businesses alike find themselves increasingly priced out of the larger cities like Moscow, home to around 11.9 million people, the vast countryside remains only sparsely inhabited. In the years to follow, Russian nationals and travelers alike hope to see further improvement to accommodations and modern technology—alongside the departure of COVID-19—with the goal of restoring the Russian Federation to its previously enjoyed status of tourist attraction and destination.