Moscow: Hotel rooms and not goals are on top of the mind for Russia, which hosts the FIFA World Cup two years from now.
With hotel rooms in chronic short supply across all its major cities and a large chunk of existing properties not making the cut, Russia is on an overdrive looking for foreign investments in the hospitality sector to cater to the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans who are expected to descend on the former Soviet state.
"Overall we have a strong deficit of decent hotels. This is a problem. If you want to categorise hotels available now, may be half the hotels that are called hotels, won't pass the test because they are of a lower category," Valery Korovkin, head of the International Development division of Russia's Federal Agency for Tourism, told this visiting IANS correspondent.
Korovkin's department is tasked with monitoring of hotel construction and availability of rooms and transportation for one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
"There is a need to upgrade existing hotels to the level, so that they will be palatable for tourists -- or to build new ones. This is not a matter of just one place but this is a general problem," he pointed out.
According to official statistics, the total pool of rooms in branded international hotel chains in Russia is around 35,000 and out of these, the two major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg account for more than half.
The statistics look stark when one factors in the seating capacity of football stadia in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which are expected to host more than a dozen World Cup matches. While Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium can seat over 80,000, the Kretovsky stadium in St. Petersburg has a capacity of almost 70,000.
The shortfall between the arriving fans and the rooms available for their stay is the one thing Russia is keen to plug -- and quickly. It is also one of the reasons why the country is keen on attracting international investment.
"Russia is keen to attract investments as there are a line of events in 2016 and in 2017. In 2018, Russia is the host of the FIFA World Cup which will need additional infrastructure in the areas of transportation, hospitality, entertainment and restaurants. The tourism department plans to add in upwards of 15,000 rooms in Russia," said Paresh Navani of the Russian Information Centre, India.
The crisis can also be gauged from the fact that room availability in cities like St. Petersburg simply dried up ahead of the World Ice Hockey Championship 2016 in Moscow and St. Petersburg that got under way on Friday.
"There are incentives for early investors in St. Petersburg, which includes a five-year tax-holiday. We are looking at investments starting from 30 million roubles ($455,000). There is a special department which helps control, guide and protect the project of the investors," says Rimma Sachunova, deputy chairperson of the St. Petersburg Committee on Tourism Development.
Russia has already pledged to FIFA that it would invest $11 billion to raise and upgrade tourism-related infrastructure ahead of the World Cup, from both public funds and private investment.
The inbound tour operators in this country are also looking at the FIFA World Cup as an opportunity to promote Russia as a tourism destination.
"It is a big opportunity. I think the Russian government should also give visas more easily for fans of football," Sergei Solokov, general director of Indigo Tour, told IANS.
The World Cup will be held in Russia from June 14 to July 15. Eleven cities -- Kaliningrad, Kazan, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Saransk, St. Petersburg, Sochi, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg -- will be hosting matches during the event.