Has the FIFA World Cup just unlocked the next hottest tourist destination?

The FIFA World Cup may well have come to an end and with it a gluttony of superlative football and oh so many of those wonderful scenes of global fans mingling together. A multiple cacophony of unity and joy, under a sea of national teams kits and flags, were scenes of unheralded companionship never before witnessed free of violence but in harmony and openness. However one thing is for sure now, the time spent during this World Cup will live long in the memory of foreign fans and Russian nationals alike.

Scenes similar to those experienced on Nikolyskaya Street in Moscow and replicated across all the Russian cities fortunate enough to be chosen to host the games, from Kaliningrad to Ekaterinburg, unremitting experiences of happiness and camaraderie in a plethora of colour, where Brazilian fans danced to the beat of the samba, Argentinian fans chanted to the sounds  of their pounding drums, the ever-present Mexican fans wearing their luchador masks and the Peruvian fans, known as the Blanquiroja (or white-and-red) for the color of the national team uniform. These unforgettable scenes of joy and mutual respect were indeed the first time for many Russians to experience such a cultural diversification. The parties are over for now but this World Cup just maybe the catalyst that brings a sea change when it comes to global interpretation of what Russia has to offer as a tourist location, and with it increased tourist numbers from all around the globe. This could be the ultimate reward for the country after such a magnificent tournament.

July 15th 2018 will always be remembered as one of the most enjoyable FIFA World Cup Finals, where France emerged magnanimous against an oh so brave Croatian spirit. But it is the whole FIFA World Cup 2018 held in Russia, that the FIFA President has now volunteered as one of the best ever held in the history of the competition. Moreover, so many high-ranking officials, global commentators, journalists and not least the 1 million international tourists (almost all of them visiting Russia for the first time) have also eulogised how safe, wonderful, and open the country of Russia really is.  

Marlitos81 — A Brazilian/American Instagram user — was a typical voice  captured on Instagram where he shared


«Spasibo Russia I never thought I would be sharing how much I am going to miss Russia. But in a matter of 10 days I’ve come to love and admire this country with its vastness and cultural value, its amazing people. I will definitely come back.»

There were so many more observations by fans fully insistent that yes Russia was indeed a fantastic country that all in unison agreed that its people, food, and geography were something to be admired, seen, and explored by the global audience. A pattern was appearing and that was — the media coverage portraying Russia as a cold, dull, and dangerous country was simply not true…

 

A young English teenager caught the imagination of a global audience hungry for more information on what was Russia really like to explore. In his Youtube Channel he communicated and educated the viewers as to what he was enjoying and experiencing traveling around the country watching his beloved English team, driven by his sheer desire to crush myths that the country was a violent, unfriendly, flat, and boring place to visit. He garnered 500k hits and many congratulatory comments regarding his role as an ambassador to the merits of visiting Russia both as a football fan and as a tourist.

Another British fan in his video interview to TalkSport called it a disgrace that the Western media propaganda resulted in putting off so many British fans from visiting the World Cup and supporting their team that went as far as competing for the 3rd place.

Despite all the efforts of some media to destabilize the World Cup and undermine attendance, the fans descended on the country in their hundreds of thousands. Many spent their life’s savings and embarked on a journey involving a multitude of planes, trains, and automobiles and staying in some unconventional sleeping locations. This experience will live long in the memory to share with their fellow citizens on social media and for tales to be shared back in their home countries. These stories will endure and just might become the motivation that brings new visitors to Russia to explore its rich and vast lands.

An unprecedented flow of visitors from all over the world pouring into Russia over the past month interestingly threw up new trends in tourist behavior as opposed to presumed patterns.

We decided to use this opportunity and take a closer look into these tourist behaviours by analyzing 5,000 social media profiles of visitors traveling through the country at this time to understand what was it exactly that they enjoyed so much.

 

The first interesting finding was that 60+% of those who left positive comments fell into the 23 — 45 age group, a much younger demographic, than the one Russia ends up marketing itself to with the typical cultural and historical program built around numerous historical sites, museums, and tours of the Golden Ring. They were more motivated to go and experience the cities’ bars and restaurants and inner city architectural sights that were unique to Russia. Despite Russia’s perception and positioning as a «museum» country — going to museums and theatres was actually the last thing on people’s minds and itineraries.

Instead, tourists enjoyed just walking around and exploring, seeing landmarks, and eating out. The tourist experience in the 11 Russian host cities of the football tournament turned out to be more akin to the typical tourist experience visiting any European city for an eventful city break.

Which brings about another finding — the topic of outdated and inadequate self-perception and consequent irrelevant marketing of the country based on nostalgia and revolving around the history and glory of the past, while completely disregarding the present-day reality and modern lifestyle of Russia that the tourists enjoyed so much. It seems as if it weren’t the Russians who showed the guests the Nikolskaya street, but quite the opposite — the football fans discovered it for both themselves and the locals and gave everything, starting from that very street, a new perspective. For the first time, many Russians experienced the country through the eyes of foreigners, in a completely different way, and appreciated along with the ecstatic tourists all that it has to offer in terms of lifestyle — like the stunningly beautiful and clean streets, convenient infrastructure, cheap taxi rides, numerous locations for sightseeing and activities, quality eating/drinking out, everything being open and working on weekends and round the clock, easily accessible and free Wi-Fi and much more.

Like Sleeping Beauty awakened by a kiss from Prince Charming, mother Russia has been awakened by the Mundial to its own present-day reality with admirable atmosphere, comfortable living, and safe environments. Hopefully, this awakening will help cure the nostalgia syndrome and result in a more adequate sense of identity, translating into more appropriate positioning and effective marketing of the country to the global community moving forward.

Kudos must be given to the Russian Government for delivering such an iconic tournament both to its Russian nationals and international global visitors. However, this opportunity must not be lost and should be fully embraced. Having gained this momentum, it is important to continue the promotion and marketing of Russia to the world in the efforts to put it firmly on the global tourist map. Not to rest, and as one Russian commentator stated, to just sit on its laurels and accept the geopolitical propaganda without response or an answer. Russia has now answered in the most emphatic way — by holding a tournament believed by many to be the best organised in the history of FIFA. It has brought so much happiness and joy to so many people not just because of the beautiful game, but because of one of the most important things in life — a basic human need of simply connecting with people, people from new countries, new walks of life, with their openness, bright and beautiful colours and approach to travel, new cultures, new and refreshing mentality and the beauty in their diversity in general. Though now it has ended, and for most people here it feels that a new beguiling best friend has left them.

It’s time for the Russian government to think about the best way forward.  After all, increased tourism brings so many benefits to the country, not least, in showcasing a country; it brings jobs and shared wealth, an increase in GDP, and potential new business relationships and diversification.

The first step has already been taken in this direction with Vladimir Putin announcing on the day of the World Cup Finals that Fan ID holders will be granted visa-free access all the way until the end of this year, giving those who haven’t had enough of Russia, the opportunity to easily return and continue this romance. This is a much welcomed decision and we are hoping that it is only a start, and a continuance strategy of transitioning Russia from the biggest blind spot on the global tourism map into the biggest hot spot on the global tourism map will be delivered.

One that aside from the signature cultural and historical heritage the country is currently admired for, will unfold in front of the international audience all the sides of Russia that have not yet been discovered. And these are plenty: from the urban experiences that impressed the FIFA World Cup visitors in the 11 host cities so much, to nature and active lifestyle tourism opportunities the vast and geographically unique territory of Russia brings, to a gastronomy renaissance the country is currently going through and so much more.

We have observed in our research that vodka and pelmeni were among the 3 most consumed foods and drinks among the visitors of the Mundial. Although it does show that the tourists are willing to explore Russian cuisine, it is a clear indication to all of us living here, how much of an untapped territory gastronomy alone is for foreign visitors, since Russia has such a variety of culinary experiences to offer: from local farm to table produce, to floating street food courts and Michelin star quality fine dining.

Norah, a Saudi Arabian / Dutch national, living in the so spoilt with choice Dubai and having already been to 84 countries, visited Moscow for the first time this summer. This is the feedback she shared with us on Facebook having gone more adventurous than pelmeni in her culinary explorations:


“We should start a petition to include Moscow on the Michelin lists because it’s totally a culinary paradise.”  

These are certainly interesting times for Russia. The people of the world have discovered that the huge chunk of land on the map that has previously suffered from a stereotype of being covered with nothing but forests and snow is, in fact, a real place, one you can not only travel to but immensely enjoy. Having barely scratched the surface of what the country has to offer during the Fifa Championship, the world is now wanting to explore it. The Russian people too have tasted multiculturalism and mass tourism in excess of what they have ever seen or experienced before and they want more of it now.

Perhaps it would be best to leave the final comment to a Russian national Ludmila Fokina whose words are synonymous and resonate with the whole of the Russian nation these days when she spoke so eloquently on the World Cup and its effect on the people…


«I think that the FIFA World Cup in Russia will stay forever and be unforgettable for all Russians and international fans that came to visit this event. We are truly a very unique nation and despite our existing problems such as increasing income taxes and the raising of the retirement age communicated to us by our government at the same time as the opening of FIFA 2018, Russian people with their open hearts and warm hospitality met guests from all over the world. All fans noticed that the organization and infrastructure everywhere were held to a very high level. I was in Nikolskaya Street when one of the fans came up to me and asked my nationality. When he knew that I was Russian he said: “ All Russians are absolutely amazing people…” and he added: «….not only women”. I didn’t expect to hear this nor see on the handmade posters so many thankful words to Russia. My heart melted seeing that.”

 

This World Cup in Russia showed us that there are no borders between countries, nationalities, and no wars between people as the people of the world are united with a common desire — a peaceful life and existence in harmony and mutual respect. Sport engenders all that is beautiful about this life, and it harmonises and spreads the love. And when it comes to love, turned out that mother Russia has a lot of it to give. Come see for yourself. 

 

Jason White  — Journalist and Radio Host

Marina Litvinova — Editor of www.RadRussia.com

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