Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is currently in China after getting invited by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in part prompted by a 35 percent increase in Russia-Chinese trade volume this year. Medvedev also took the opportunity to point out that cultural exchanges between the two countries are intensifying, with 1.2 million Chinese tourists visiting Russia in 2016, and year-to-date figures in 2017 already showing a 20 percent boost on last year’s figures. As a result, Russia is now considering further easing of visa restrictions for Chinese nationals in an effort to keep the positive trend going.

As part of Medvedev’s China visit, he joined a live webcast on the People’s Daily Online, the online arm of the communist party’s official newspaper, where he took questions from Chinese internet users tuning in.

“We are mulling over the possibility to further ease visa restrictions,” Medvedev during the webcast. “At the moment, the Russian government is considering a document which stipulates that the minimum number of tourists in a group will be reduced to three, while the possible period of stay will be extended to three weeks. We still continue the search for the most appropriate ways of cooperation in this field,” he added.

More Chinese visitors prompts eased visa policy in Russia

These possible visa requirements would mean a slight improvement on current Russian visa policy toward Chinese citizens, which at present allows Chinese tour group members in groups of five persons or more to stay in the country visa-free for up to 14 days.

The proposed changes would make little practical difference to China’s growing number of independent travelers, as all travelers that do not belong to a tour group are subject to Russia’s regular visa policy—requiring applying for a visa and paying a visa fee before entry.

While a three-person tour group may not sound like a regular tour group at all, the official requirement for enjoying tour group visa-free access is that the group is accompanied by tour operator representative that is registered as such in both China and Russia. In other words, taking advantage of the visa-free policy is not as easy as claiming that one of one’s co-travelers is a Chinese tour guide.

A three-person tour group is not a tour group in the traditional sense

So, while independent travel in the traditional sense can still be ruled out as an option for those who wish to avoid dealing with visa applications, Russia’s proposed changes to the regime invites high-level customized tours in the country. A three-person tour in Russia for three weeks may not count as independent travel, but it most certainly allows for a personalized itinerary rather than something sold off-the-shelf at Chinese travel agencies. Besides, the language differences alone may warrant the use of an accompanying guide.

Medvedev also took the opportunity to encourage Chinese people to take advantage of Russia’s “Far East E-Visas”—a relatively underreported type of free electronic visa offered for travel to some of Russia’s krais and oblasts (administrative divisions) in Eastern Russia. Notably, Primorsky Krai at the Chinese border is one of the regions included in the scheme—and just happens to be one of the few places in Russia where gambling is allowed. In fact, Vladivostok is the home to a growing number of casinos catering to Chinese travelers.

Russia wants to attract Chinese gamblers to its Far East casinos

Russia, hoping to cash in on the growth of Chinese tourism, may not go all the way to visa-free or visa-on-arrival, and is instead trying to shape regulation to boost certain types of tourism it finds easier to control—or more profitable. For the time being, that means tour groups and gamblers, but things are changing fast—and visa policy will need to keep up.

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