Red tape blamed for drop in European visitors to Russia

The number of visitors to Russia from European countries fell by up to 24 percent in the first quarter as tour operators blamed visa costs and red tape, an industry union said Thursday.

"The number of visitors to Russia from countries that have traditionally sent the most tourists has fallen noticeably," the Russian Tourism Industry Union said in a statement.

The number of tourists from neighbouring Finland - recently linked to Saint Petersburg by high-speed train - fell by 24 percent in the first quarter, year on year, the union said, citing official statistics.

The numbers of German visitors fell by 10 percent in the same period and French and Spanish by 14 percent.

However the total number of tourists to Russia, which includes large groups such as the Chinese, rose by five percent.

The tour operators' union said almost all the international tour operators it questioned blamed falling European visitor numbers on "the high cost of tourist visas and the complexity of the visa process for foreigners."

In Spain, the introduction of visa centres to process applications has seen the cost of a tourist visa rise by 30 percent and the time taken from a maximum of 10 days to 21 days, it said.

People wishing to travel to Russia have to acquire an invitation from a hotel, an organisation or a personal friend. Once in Russia, they are required to register with local police.

Russia has insistently called on the European Union to lift visa restrictions on its citizens and President Dmitry Medvedev recently hailed preliminary concessions at a Russia-EU summit.

While Russians can obtain long-term multi-entry tourist visas to Europe, Russia offers only single or double entry tourist visas that cannot stretch beyond booked travel dates.

Citing statistics that any simplification of visa rules increases tourism by up to 30 percent, the tourism union deputy president Yury Barzykin called for the Russian government to ensure its strategy was a "two-way street."