Casinos are among the lures Russia is using to promote tourism and investment into the underpopulated but resource rich Far East region. Photo: Vitaliy Ankov / RIA Novosti / Sputnik

Russia is expanding its free electronic visa program to all airports in its vast Far East region to bolster tourism and attract business investment.

The Ministry for the Development of the Far East has submitted a bill on the visa expansion to the national government, a copy of which has been reviewed by Asia Times.

Once the bill passes, which is expected this year, it would allow the e-visa regime at all nine airports in the region. Currently, it is only available at the airport and port in Vladivostok.

The system allows citizens of 18 countries to obtain a free visa online for travel to the Russian Far East. It has been operating in the Primorsky Krai region, the most populous of the Far East territories and where Vladivostok is located, since August this year. The visa issued on arrival  allows stays of up to 8 days.

Tourism to the Russian Far East is growing year on year. This year, Primorsky Krai has already attracted more than half a million visitors from abroad, up from 460,000 in 2016, local officials said. Similar trends can be observed in other territories of the Far East.

“From Vladivostok to Beijing it is a two-hour flight. To Tokyo and Seoul – also two hours. Nearby there are many people, and wealthy people who could come to visit, could be interested in local services in Vladivostok. We could naturally help tourism develop in our territory. This is the goal of the electronic visa,” the Russian Minister for Far Eastern Development, Alexander Galushka, said.

Russia’s Far East region. Wikipedia commons.

More than 3,000 people from 13 countries have entered Vladivostok with an e-visa. Most are from China, with over 1,800 visitors, followed by those from Japan. Just over 5,000 people from all 18 countries have applied since the program began.

Russia’s Far East has nine international airports and 

along with Vladivostok another four are now set up to process e-visas in Kamchatka, Amur, Khabarovsk and Sakhalin territories.

“Our colleagues from the Federal Security Service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Communications have confirmed that the airports of Khabarovsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Blagoveshchensk are already technically equipped and ready to work with electronic visas,” Pavel Volkov, deputy minister for development of the Far East, told Asia Times.

The simplified procedure for the entry of overseas citizens using electronic visas will be extended to other checkpoints once they are equipped with appropriate software and hardware, the new bill that governs the e-visa rollout says.

The countries whose citizens can use the e-visa are: Brunei, India, China, North Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.