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Backlog of 50,000 Russian visa applications swamp Finnish authorities

Russian travel to Finland is picking up speed, as up to 4,000 visa applications per day are now being submitted in St Petersburg alone. Processing times at the Finnish consulate in the city have been delayed for months due to the rush.

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Image: Yle

Some 50,000 outstanding visa applications are waiting on a decision at the Consulate General in St Petersburg, as Russia tourism to Finland regains its momentum after a long period of dormancy.

"It's been a huge change, no doubt, but it was expected. Now the problem is that there is a month-long waiting period, as our resources can't keep up with the workload," explains Kari Lehtonen, the head of Finland's visa unit in St Petersburg.

The consulate estimates that St Petersburg area residents alone will submit half a million applications for a visa this year. This means that the slump in Russian tourism to Finland might be a thing of the past, as this year has already charted as many visitors as those that crossed the border in all of 2015. 

The city of Vyborg has also seen a boon in visa applications, but other major Russian cities located close to Finland, like Petrozavodsk and Murmansk, haven't recorded a similar increase.

Waiting on a holiday for two years

The previous slowdown in visa applications from across the eastern border can be explained by the slump of the ruble, brought on by a sharp drop in oil prices and western sanctions. When the ruble was weak, it was simply too expensive for Russian residents to travel abroad. Now that the Russian currency has regained some of its value, people are again free to explore.

"The ruble exchange rate is good, conducive enough to travel to Finland and make some purchases," says Lehtonen.

The economy is not as strong as it was before the value of the rouble fell, however, so Russian residents don't have the funds to travel south. Fortunately, Finland is close by, has several products that can't be found on Russian shop shelves, and transport costs to get here aren't too expensive.

Backup due to personnel cuts

Budget cuts to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have led to the visa processing unit in St Petersburg being reduced to the bare minimum. Decision-making on the visas has also been transferred to the visa service centre in Kouvola. Now that tourism from Russia is reviving, there aren't enough employees to process the applications accordingly.

"There's a risk people will get their visas from a different consulate as a result," says Lehtonen.

The longer processing times have led many Russians to cancel their trips to Finland, when for instance they haven't received their paperwork in time to get to their advanced booking cottage. Both individuals and travel agencies have been disappointed.

The Foreign Ministry will try to clear up the visa application backlog by hiring 30 new seasonal employees for its Kouvola unit, but Lehtonen says the consulate would also need more staff.

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