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Can vaccine visitors boost Russia's image?

Emily Sherwin Moscow | Sergey Satanovskiy Moscow
March 31, 2021

Officially, Russia's borders with most countries are still closed because of the pandemic. But international tour agencies are already booking vaccination trips to Moscow — seemingly with tacit backing from the Kremlin.

A medical worker sets up bottles of Sputnik V on a table (Dragan Maksimovic/DW)
Russia has always seen its vaccine rollout as geopolitical power playImage: Dragan Maksimovic/DW

Two short four-day trips to Moscow, with a day of sightseeing and a jab of Russia's coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V: That's what the Norwegian tourist agency World Visitor is advertising to travelers hungry for immunity. Prices for the COVID-19 vaccine package tours cost €1,200-3,000 ($1,400-3,500), though travelers won't be billed until they officially receive a Russian visa. As countries across Europe face vaccine shortages, the prospect of immunization trips could be alluring to many travelers — even if Russia's Sputnik V vaccine has not yet been approved for use by the European Medicines Agency.

In Germany, there has been huge public anger about the slow pace of the vaccination campaign in recent weeks. And some Germans have chosen to look outside the borders for help.

The initial German travelers on a World Visitor tour are set to arrive in Moscow for their first dose of Sputnik V on April 8, with a trip for the second jab scheduled for a few weeks later. DW also spoke to representatives of the Italy-based EurAsian Travel, an agency that is also looking into the logistics of setting up vaccination trips.

Russian officials have not officially given the green light for tourists to fly in for the jab. In fact, the borders are still closed to citizens of most EU countries — including Germans. "So far there is no program for vaccinating tourists in Russia," Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said on March 22. He added that the vaccine is only for residents.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov admitted that there had been requests to consider "whether foreigners should be given the possibility to travel and get vaccinated here" and said the "question of organizing the entry of foreigners for the vaccine" would be something for the government to consider. But he also said the "absolute priority" is citizens for now.

A man receives a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 in Siberia
Russia began the rollout of its vaccine back in DecemberImage: Evgeny Kozyrev/REUTERS

'Russian and foreign'

Behind the scenes, Russian officials seem to be pushing to allow noncitizens to visit for the COVID-19 jab. The All-Russia People's Front, a coalition of public political organizations founded and headed by President Vladimir Putin, has been actively involved in planning the vaccination tours. The group has provided a supporting letter for the upcoming trips, seen by DW — a letter that helps secure visa applications.

According to the document, the vaccination for "Russian and foreign citizens" is the initiative of the "central clinic hospital of the Administrative Department of the President of the Russian Federation" and the Federal Medical-Biological Agency, a national public health institute.

The All-Russia People's Front is also supporting vaccination tours with World Visitor for Russian citizens living in Germany. In fact, the first 40 Russian citizens to arrive next week will only have to pay for their flights. They won't have to spend a cent for their hotel stay or for any medical or transportation expenses in and around Moscow. It is unclear who is covering those costs.

In response to a request for comment, Valery Groyukhanov, a coordinator at the All-Russia People's Front, confirmed that the organization is helping Russian citizens living in Germany get their jabs. "The vaccine is not available in Germany, so our volunteers are prepared to facilitate the visit of Russian citizens to their home country to get a coronavirus vaccination," Groyukhanov said.

Goryukhanov did not directly respond to DW's questions about vaccination trips for foreigners. At the time of this article's publication, the Russian Health Ministry had also not responded to DW's request for comment on the legal basis for trips for foreigners.

People wait after receiving a dose of Sputnik V at Sports Palace in Mexico City
Dozens of countries, including Mexico, have authorized the Sputnik V vaccineImage: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

Race for vaccine

Clearly, the trips could be a PR coup for Russia — if foreign tourists are able to come despite border closures. Russia's first vaccine was named Sputnik V, after the world's first satellite. It's a nod to the Cold War space race and a clear indication that Russian officials view the vaccination campaign through a geopolitical lens. Sputnik V, one of three Russian vaccines, was rushed out last year despite reports that the final phase of trials was not completed. Putin has called Russia's vaccine "the best in the world" and has boasted that 55 countries have approved Sputnik V, which has been declared 91.6% effective, according to a study published in the reputable scientific journal The Lancet.

Albert Sigl, a co-owner of World Visitor, told DW that the initial trips will get a lot of press coverage — with travelers being split into one "press group" receiving media attention and one that wants to stay out of the public eye.

Vladimir Putin holds a microphone
Vladimir Putin recently announced that he got vaccinated with Sputnik V himselfImage: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Sputnik Kremlin/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Questions of ethics

Elisabeth Straub, a 56-year-old Berlin-based copywriter, is one of the Germans planning to travel to Moscow for the jab next week. "In a pandemic people shouldn't think too politically," Straub told DW. "Instead, they should think about how to get everyone vaccinated as fast as possible to curb the pandemic." Straub said she wanted to get vaccinated because she often has to work in open-plan offices and is worried about getting sick.

Manfred L., from Mainz, is more conflicted about his planned trip. "Of course I don't want to become the long arm of the Putin administration," the 63-year-old said. But he added that the "dirty" politics between governments and within the pharmaceutical industry have convinced him to go ahead with the trip. "I don't want to play this game anymore," he said. "This is about me now. And that's why I'm just going to say: I'll be a little pig and just do this." He added: "I am just scared that if COVID gets me, it will really get me."

Manfred said he was facing criticism from friends and family and didn't want his name published for fear of a public backlash — including for paying to get vaccinated before his turn comes in Germany.

Saint Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin as seen from Zaryadye Park in Moscow
Tourists will be offered sightseeing trips in Moscow and across Russia along with their jab Image: Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/dpa/picture alliance

A saving grace?

Economic interests seem to be a primary factor in offering the vaccination trips, which could potentially save Russia's tourism sector, which lost about 500 billion rubles (€5.6 billion/$6.6 billion) when foreign tourists stayed away in 2020, according to the head of Russia's federal tourism agency.

The same is true for travel companies outside of Russia, Sigl said: "We as a tour operator have not been allowed to carry out trips for more than a year. I have no political motivations at all here. This is just a business model that offered itself up." More than 700 German citizens have signed up for one of the Sputnik V trips with World Visitor so far, according to the agency. And Sigl said he had been given firm assurances by his Russian partners that vaccination tourism will be possible.

Sigl said he had been in close contact with the Russian airline Aeroflot. World Visitor has apparently booked 650 seats with the carrier — ahead of border openings. Aeroflot told DW that it "cannot confirm this information," adding that "we have no information about the organization of vaccination tours for foreign citizens."

But Sigl said the public denials from Russian officials meant nothing. "You can't trust any of our competitors on this now," he said. "Officially they will all tell you they aren't doing it." He added that the economic interest in getting vaccination tourism off the ground is huge. 

"This concept would allow Aeroflot to get all its planes back in the air," Sigl said.

Sputnik V raises hopes in Moscow

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