Dear fellow travellers
The whispers from Moscow last week that Russia will sanction visa-free travel to the country for visitors arriving and leaving on ferries is good news indeed. Cruise ship passengers have long benefitted from just such a dispensation, but only if they take part in a fully escorted tour. Hence the crowds of day trippers that are herded around St Petersburg during the cruise season.
But early signs are that the arrangements for ferry passengers will allow solo-exploration of selected ports, and if it comes to pass in the months ahead, hidden europe will be first in line for short visa-free trips to Russia. The word is that stays of up to seventy-two hours will be sanctioned and - unlike cruise passengers who are obliged under their scheme to return to their ship by nightfall - ferry passengers will be permitted to use land-based hotels.
This could give quite a boost to Baltic ferry services. Last summer's short-lived attempt by Stella Lines to run a Helsinki to St Petersburg route foundered after just nine weeks, there being just too little demand for a short stay in St Petersburg that came with hefty visa fees.
The cities that stand to benefit from the new policy, if and when it is finally implemented, are St Petersburg, Vyborg, Kaliningrad and Murmansk. Fifteen years ago, the Varangerfjord catamaran shuttled to and fro between Kirkenes in northern Norway and the Russian port of Murmansk, a valued link that was vastly preferable to the slow bus connection on poor roads between the two towns. And some years back we took a boat trip through the Saimaa Canal that afforded some great views of the Russian city of Vyborg. Under the new regulations, perhaps we shall see visa-free trips by ferry for weekends in Vyborg from nearby Finnish towns such as Lappeenranta. And the Polish ferry company that runs summer services to Kaliningrad from Frombork must surely be looking for an upturn in traffic.
This evident piece of diplomatic largesse on Russia's part may also have a vein of self interest. The new policy will be a boost to Russian based ferry companies, who have long struggled to establish routes that might attract visitors to Russia. Now they might get that chance in the Baltic and Barents Sea markets.
And Russia has been quietly striking deals for more wide-ranging visa-free travel with a number of European countries (although conspicuously not with the EU). The latest country to benefit from such a scheme is Montenegro - just in time for a new direct train service between Moscow and Bar on the coast of Montenegro that starts in mid-June this year. The authorities in Belgrade and Moscow recently formalised an ad-hoc agreement for reciprocal visa-free travel for holders of Russian and Serbian passports.
Other countries are increasingly keen to cash in on Russians' growing appetite for Adriatic holidays. Croatia recently announced that Russians may enjoy sun, sea and sand at Croatia's coastal resorts without a visa this year, but only until 31 October.
Nicky and Susanne
(editors, hidden europe magazine)