So far, there is no clear answer. Within Russia, a visa-free regime with China has both proponents and opponents. And while opponents appear to be the larger group, it is important to examine the broader situation and break down both sides’ arguments to understand what is potentially at stake in Moscow’s visa policy.
Currently, Russia has a working, albeit somewhat limiting, short-term visa policy with China. Tourist visas are issued for up to 30 days. So-called business visas, which require an invitation from an organization in Russia, are issued for a period of 30 to 90 days.
Additionally, some Chinese tourists already do not need visas to visit Russia. Since 2000, the two countries have had visa-free entry for certain organized tour groups. In July 2018, the requirements were simplified further: the minimum group size was reduced to three people and the maximum length of stay was increased to 21 days.
Starting in 2017, Russia also began issuing electronic visas to visit the “free port of Vladivostok.” Four days after applying through the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website, the applicant is emailed a form that replaces the visa at the border crossing. The government charges no consular fees, and the tourist can enter the country within 30 days of receiving the form.
The e-visa policy only applies to the citizens of 18 countries (including China and Japan, but not European states). The maximum length of stay is eight days, but the visitor is not allowed to leave the “free port.” That said, apart from the city of Vladivostok, the port’s territory encompasses most of the Far East —Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Chukotka, and the Primorsky and Khabarovsk regions.
However, visitors must enter and exit from the same point, which limits the positive effects of the e-visa regime. Statistics indicate that the short-stay term and geographical restrictions deter tourists from using the e-visa.
Thus, individual Chinese travelers must get traditional visas, which entail utilizing the paid services of a tourism firm and then paying roughly $90 for the most basic single-entry visa. These extra costs and red tape are the main reason why Chinese tourists prefer to enter Russia in visa-free tour groups. Unfortunately for the Russian economy, members of these groups are under the complete control of Chinese tour guides, which means that most of their money goes to Chinese businesspeople in Russia.
There have long been discussions of liberalizing the visa regime between Russia and China. However, a serious roadblock stands in the way: Russia never unilaterally compromises on visa issues. Moscow believes that the elimination of short-term visas should be reciprocal. And while China’s Foreign Ministry has indicated it would agree to reciprocally eliminate visas, this isn’t a high priority for China. Russian visitors are still few and far between, and lobbyists for the Chinese tourism industry want to maintain the status quo to continue their industry’s control of Chinese tourism abroad.
Moreover, Beijing is generally quite conservative on visa policies. China still maintains a visa regime with its closest ally, Pakistan. And according to the Henley Passport Index, which tracks freedom of movement, the Chinese passport is one of the most useless in the world for visa-free travel: 120 place in the ranking, on par with Saudi Arabia and Lesotho. But that doesn’t seem to bother Beijing much.