Russians may be getting a new way to reserve hotel rooms online. In a recent announcement, the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism said it plans to release a national service by next year, as part of its development strategy over the next 16 years. The service is said to resemble the popular website Booking.com. According to officials, the new project's main goal will be to promote local health resorts—Russia's so-called “sanitariums.”
Regional Web resources (small websites with the information about local hotels and spas) will be able to provide data for this new service, and state-owned companies like Rostelekom and Rostech are vying for procurement contracts to design the still-unnamed site.
For the project to be a success, it would require about $50 million USD over the next four years, estimates Evgeny Shpilman, the director of operations at Ostrovok.ru, another Russian booking service. Based on his own experience, Shpilman guesses that the government could earn 10-25 percent of every travel order's value, if the new website comes together properly.
Ostrovok.ru is one of the most successful booking websites in Russia, where there are several other popular services, such as Oktogo.ru, Hotels.ru, Agoda.ru, Hrs.com, and, of course, Booking.com.
The online hotel-booking market in Russia is well-established, and any private business would not have an easy time breaking into the industry. The government could face far fewer obstacles, however, as its focus will be entirely domestic, allowing it to concentrate on a more specific set of services.
A government service for booking hotel rooms could be only the first step toward Russia's tourist isolation. In January, the media reported that Russia is looking to launch its own computer reservations system for booking and selling tickets to multiple airlines (a network known as the Global Distribution System, or GDS). Businesses have resisted calls to switch to a Russian GDS, which would disrupt patterns in another well-established Russian travel market.
The logic behind the government's interventions into the online travel business mirror several new Internet regulations, which also burden the industry with considerable expenses for obeying the law.
Creating new services for booking hotels and airline tickets complements wider efforts in Russia to adjust to greater isolation from the West. The Kremlin recently signaled that it might launch a new national payment system that would replace Visa and MasterCard. The Central Bank is also searching for alternatives to the SWIFT system, which allows banks to send and receive information about transactions. In May, state-owned Rostelecom launched a new national search engine called Sputnik, which quick became a joke on the RuNet.
“Russia isn't Europe” has been a clarion call in Moscow, as tensions in Ukraine have chilled Russia's relationship with the West. As Russia turns inward, and to neighbors in the East and in Latin America, the country has sought national alternatives to goods and services that are generally Western-dominated. Moving ahead, Russia faces the dangers of breaking this dependence too quickly.