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‘Overstays’ dealt blow to fledgling Russian tourism market

  • February 28, 2021

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Russian asylum seekers protest at the Paseo Loop in Hagåtña in this Nov. 14, 2020, file photo.

More than 5,000 Russians visited Guam during fiscal 2019, out of 1.6 million total visitors. The Russian market had shown consistent growth each year, and arrivals were up nearly 29% from fiscal 2018.

The pandemic effectively shut down Guam’s entire tourism industry in early 2020, but former Guam Visitors Bureau board member Bart Jackson said he believes Russia still is a viable market, despite tougher immigration requirements. Jackson was in charge of the board’s Russia and new markets committee.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, … that there is pent-up demand in the far east Russian market to come to Guam,” Jackson said.

Most Russians who came to the island during the parole authority were first-time visitors, according to visitor agency reports, and their favorite place to stay was the Hilton Guam Resort Spa. About two-thirds of Russian visitors were married, and most, 63%, were between the ages of 25 and 39.

In this April 2012 photo, Russian tourist Lena Shishova, right, expresses her views on what improvements can be made to cater to visitors from Russia while in a hotel room in Tumon. Vacationing from Blagoveshchensk, Russia, Shishova and Jane Khrantsova, center, were taken on an island tour by Vasili Mladinov with Guam Voyage.

Jackson said Guam officials lobbied for parole authority for both Russia and China, and were disappointed when only Russian parole authority was granted. However, he said, Russians tend to spend more money than Chinese tourists and stay here longer, which makes a Russian tourist worth about five Chinese tourists in terms of economic benefit.

The problem with parole authority, Jackson said, is it can be eliminated by the stroke of pen, without legislation, and without Guam’s input.

“Nobody told us why it’s happening,” he said. “It just happened.”

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In this January 2012 file photo, Russian tourists Anastasiia Grokhotova, 17, and her mother Alla Grokhotova, 37, shop at DFS Galleria.

Temporary measure

According to the federal government, the parole authority that allowed Russians to visit Guam and the CNMI was supposed to be temporary, pending Russia’s inclusion in the existing Guam/CNMI Visa Waiver Program. The visa waiver allows citizens of eligible countries to come to Guam and the CNMI for business, pleasure or transit, for up to 45 days, without a U.S. visa.

The discretionary parole program started in November 2009, for Russians visiting the CNMI, and was extended to include Guam in January 2012.

“The Guam-CNMI parole policy for Russian nationals was designed as a temporary measure to support tourism in Guam and the CNMI while allowing for due consideration of Russia as a potential participating country under the (Guam/CNMI Visa Waiver Program),” the Department of Homeland Security stated in October 2019, when it formally announced its plan to end it. “In the nearly 10-year period since the parole policies were announced, Russia has not been considered eligible for the (program).”

According to Homeland Security, the parole authority was used “far too expansively than originally intended,” with about 85% of Russian tourists on Guam during 2017 using the parole authority.

“Since the 2012 expansion of the discretionary parole authority for Russian nationals seeking entry into Guam, overstays increased from 26 in (fiscal) 2012 to 147 in (fiscal) 2017, or by 465%. While this represents a relatively small percentage of overall Russian visitors in the CNMI and Guam, the increase in overstays is in and of itself a security concern,” the department stated.

Russians now must obtain a tourist or business visa to visit Guam. According to Homeland Security, most of those types of visas are approved, and would allow Russians to stay in the country much longer than 45 days.

Asylum seekers

About 200 Russians, who arrived on island years ago, while the parole authority still was in effect, are still here, seeking asylum, according to representatives of the group.

One of their primary concerns is they are stuck on Guam, not allowed to move and live elsewhere in the country, while their asylum requests are being considered. They stated they fled from persecution in Russia.

“For months, we have been trying to bring an end to the violation of our right to freedom of movement, many of us are in despair, in a sense of hopelessness,” the group said in a written statement, announcing its plans to start a hunger strike March 1.

“Upon our repeated attempts to exercise our right to freedom of movement and free choice of place of residence, i.e. upon attempt to board a domestic flight Guam-Honolulu, we have been constantly blocked down,” the group stated. “The goal of the hunger strike is to “achieve the end to the violation of our right to freedom of movement.”

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on the Russian asylum seekers on island.

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