The successful hosting of the World Cup football tournament in 2018 gave Russia a huge chance to promote itself as a destination during a year when the majority of UK media publicity about the destination was negative.
Many of the most popular tours for Brits combine the major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, which can be easily done using the Sapsan high-speed train service, while the iconic Trans-Siberian rail journey to the far east has long been on the bucket list of more adventurous travellers.
But, as the world’s largest country, there are plenty of other options including a range of river cruises and visits to lesser-known parts of Russia, including the far north.
Regent Holidays, part of ITC Luxury Travel Group, has been specialising in travel to Russia since the Soviet days in the early 1980s, when the Cold War was still at its height.
Marketing manager Lauren Hughes says: “We have been pioneering new and unique holidays to Russia, always pushing the boundaries of tourism and taking intrigued travellers to some of Russia’s most fascinating – and often lesser-known – destinations.
“The majority of first-time visitors do want to go to Moscow and St Petersburg – these are usually people wanting to travel for a week. Some people extend their trips from Moscow and St Petersburg to get out of the city
“People who want a longer stay are interested in cruises on the Volga river, travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok or Beijing in China, stopping en-route at the various towns and cities.”
Clare Collins, Explore’s product manager for Europe, agrees that first-timers to Russia like to combine Moscow and St Petersburg and even repeat visitors find the lure of these cities hard to resist. But, at the same time, they often want to explore more of the country as part of a longer tour.
“Many passengers also want to get out of the main cities and see more of the country,” she adds.
“Travelling by sleeper train from St Petersburg, our Nordkapp Adventure travels to the Unesco-listed Kizhi island to see one of Russia’s greatest open-air museums, Solovetsky island to visit the 15th-century monastery complex, and Zayatsky island to see some stone labyrinths before arriving in the port city of Murmansk.”
Another touring option that enables holidaymakers to see more of the country is by river cruise – APT offers two river itineraries to Russia both of which take guests from St Petersburg along the Svir river before continuing down the Volga to visit some of Russia’s most rural locations on the way to Moscow.
The growing popularity of Russian river cruises is reflected by APT’s decision to increase departures for 2020.
Meanwhile, Riviera Travel has introduced a new 12-night Russia Odyssey river cruise for 2019, which starts in Moscow and then makes its way north along the Volga calling at Uglich, Yaroslavl and Lake Onega as the trip eventually makes its way to St Petersburg.
St Petersburg is also a regular stop for ocean cruises making their way around the Baltic and offers the advantage of passengers not having to secure a Russian visa (unlike river cruises where clients will have to get a visa ahead of their trip). Although ocean cruise passengers can only go ashore in St Petersburg as part of a tour operated by a licenced guide.
Most operators have reported an increase in enquiries and sales to Russia since the World Cup, which helped to eclipse some of the negative publicity in the UK following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in March 2018.
Patrick Millar, Kirker Holidays’ marketing manager, says: “The build-up to the World Cup had a depressive effect on Russia bookings as much of the media attention was negative. But in the wake of the extraordinary success of the tournament I think a lot of people saw Russia in a new – and much more positive - light, which has sparked an increase in enquiries over the autumn and winter.”
Meanwhile Riviera Travel says the World Cup has had a “very positive effect” on bookings with its Moscow and St Petersburg trip “significantly up” on last year, and the operator’s new river cruise itinerary “virtually sold out” for all eight sailings during its debut year.
Although APT adds that while the World Cup was “a brilliant opportunity which put Russia front of mind”, the tournament coincided with the introduction of a new visa form by Russian authorities, which asks for more detailed information from applicants.
All UK visitors to Russia will need to obtain a visa before their trip – the only exception is for ocean cruise passengers visiting St Petersburg for up to 72 hours on organised group tours, as mentioned earlier.
While this may be a disincentive for some clients, operators stress that the process is relatively simple and straightforward – even given the strained diplomatic relationships between the UK and Russia.
“It’s simpler than you think,” says Explore’s Clare Collins. “You do need to fill out the visa form and go to the visa centre to have your fingerprints taken, but if you follow the instructions then getting the visa isn’t a problem.”
Regent’s Lauren Hughes adds: “The key thing is not too get overly concerned about it. Tourists need to go to London, Manchester or Edinburgh visa centres in person to submit their application. Regent Holidays provide support on filling out the application forms and can help every step of the way.”
APT advises agents to “be clear” with customers about the Russian visa process from the start of the enquiry and to inform them about the type of personal information they will need to provide to secure the visa.
The visa process typically takes around two months (although fast-track options are available for clients willing to pay extra). Many tour operators offer the services of a visa-handling company to make the process easier. A standard Russian visa fee starts at £70 plus a service charge of £38.40.
As for safety and security issues, the trouble-free hosting of the World Cup seems to have helped put many fears to rest about visiting Russia. While the added security of taking an escorted tour or river cruise can add another layer of reassurance for clients.
Two cities tour
Collette’s eight-day Imperial Russia tour visits both Moscow and St Petersburg with travel between the two cities by high-speed train. The tour-only price starts at £1,649pp including some meals, walking food tour and river cruise in Moscow, and a tour of St Petersburg in a vintage Soviet-era car.
Explore’s 16-day Nordkapp Adventure starts in St Petersburg and visits Kizhi and Solovetsky islands before travelling to the far northern city of Murmansk and then into Norway, ending in Tromso. The trip departing in August 2019 is priced from £3,020pp including flights.
Kirker’s six-night escorted The Palaces & Galleries of St Petersburg includes tours to the city’s leading cultural attractions and museums with a tour lecturer. Priced from £2,648pp including flights, some meals, Russia visa and entrance fees.
Regent Holidays’ most popular Trans-Siberian rail trip is a 14-day tour from Moscow to Beijing travelling nearly 5,000 miles through Russia, Mongolia and China. The tour is priced from £2,125pp, including guided sightseeing, but excluding international flights.
Riviera Travel’s new 12-day Russian Odyssey river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg on MS Rossia is priced from £2,299pp including flights, all meals and a programme of daily tours and excursions.
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