Large-scale sporting events with thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of spectators have always been sought-after targets for terrorists, with the Boston Marathon bombings as the most recent and tragic example. The Boston Marathon bombers, brothers Dzhozkhar and Tamerian Tsarnaev, were natives of Dagestan, which is about 660 miles from Sochi, and the location of several very recent deadly explosions. The continued violence and unrest near Sochi is cause for concern as the world prepares for the Winter Olympic Games.
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in southern Russia represent a highly symbolic, highly public target in a region with a long history of bloody violence. To date, the Russian government has fought two wars against the Chechen separatists. Immersed in conflict in the form of an ongoing Islamist insurgency, North Caucasus is one of the most dangerous places on Earth right now. According to a recent article in Forbes (Sochi 2014: A Security Challenge) “the greatest threat in the run-up to and during the games will likely be an attack carried out by militants outside of Sochi in locations such as the North Caucasus or large metropolitan areas like Moscow.”
The U.S. Department of State has issued a travel alert regarding travel to Russia for the Winter Olympic Games taking place in and near Sochi, Russia. Sochi is located close to the Chechen capital of Grozny and recent deadly terrorist attacks – including suicide bombings – in Chechnya are an indicator of the potential for terrorist-lead violence during the Winter Olympic Games. Known Chechen terrorist Doku Umarov – known as ‘the Russian Bin Laden’ – made clear the intention to use force to disrupt the Games.
Let’s review the current recommendations to prepare for a safe and healthy visit to the Winter Olympic Games … we’ll start with the basics.
1. Check your Passport Expiration Date
To be issued a Russian visa, your passport must be valid for a minimum of six months AFTER your departure date. In some cases, this may require a traveler headed to the Olympics to renew their U.S. passport well ahead of the actual expiration date on the passport.
2. Apply for a Russian Visa
U.S. citizens are required to have a visa to travel to Russia and those holding tickets to the Olympic events are not exempt. As of December 1st, spectators may receive a one-month visa with same-day processing upon presenting a ticket (or confirmation of ticket purchase) for the Games. Information to apply for this special visa processing is available on the Embassy of the Russian Federation website.
3. Have Proof of Medical Insurance Valid for Russia
travelers from the U.S. to Russia for the Olympic games should check their overseas medical insurance coverage through their health insurance provider. If your coverage is not valid in Russia, you will not be issued a tourist visa to Russia. The Russian Federation requires proof of valid medical insurance in Russia before they will issue a visa.
If your own health insurance coverage does not extend to Russia, you will have to purchase a travel medical insurance plan valid for the time you expect to be in Russia. You can get quotes using our travel insurance comparison tool.
Caution! The U.S. government warns that the medical support infrastructure of Sochi is untested for handling the volume of visitors expected for the Olympics.
See a glossary of health and safety terms – with English to Russian translation – on the CDC travel notice for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
4. Have Adequate Emergency Medical Evacuation Cover
If a traveler is injured or very ill and needs medical attention that cannot be managed in Sochi, having a travel medical insurance plan with adequate coverage for emergency medical evacuation is ideal.
If the hospitals in Sochi are overwhelmed due to a large-scale attack, the injured traveler has a better chance of getting the medical attention they need through the support of their travel insurance provider who will coordinate the evacuation. The traveler will be taken to the nearest place where their injuries can be treated and, later when they are stable, they will be transported back home. Other benefits include emergency medical reunion to bring a friend or family member to the traveler’s side while they are recovering.
5. Enroll with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
This step will ensure the Embassy can keep the traveler updated with the latest safety and security information. In addition, it will help your family and friends get in touch with you in case of an emergency. Travelers can enroll in STEP online.
The U.S. Embassy will be monitoring the security situation in Sochi throughout the Olympics. In the event that it receives information of any specific and credible threat, that information will immediately be made public. Enrolling in STEP ensures that a traveler will receive those updates on their smartphone or tablet.
6. Carry Cash and Guard your Credit Card
Most hotels, shops and restaurants in metropolitan areas of Russia, but visitors to Sochi should expect to conduct daily transactions in cash as local businesses may not have the ability to accept credit cards. Tourists should also note that only cash and ‘Visa’ brand credit cards will be accepted at the Winter Olympic facilities. ATMs are available in Sochi, but the demand for cash from these machines may cause shortages.
Tips for exchanging and carrying money:
Tell your bank before you travel
Exchange money only at banks, hotels and official exchange bureaus
Have a backup credit card
Use and carry a money belt
Keep small change to pay small fees
Credit card fraud is widespread in Russia, and it’s important for tourists to keep a close eye on their cards and closely examine receipts for problems. Also, keep all your credit card receipts in case you discover a problem when you return home so that your credit card company can combat the fraud.
7. Be Aware of Laws Against Homosexuality
While President Vladimir Putin has issued statements indicating that there will be no discrimination for religion, sexuality, or gender, Russia does have a current law on their books that criminalises any positive statements about homosexuality made to children and adolescents. This was signed into law just last year – in June, 2013 – and while it is unclear how the law will be enforced it does allow for fines and administrative detention for up to 14 days.
8. Be Aware of Government Monitoring
The Russian Federal law permits the monitoring, retention, and analysis of any and all data that traverses across Russian communication networks. This includes Internet browsing, the contents of email messages, texts, telephone calls, and even fax transmissions.
For more information, see the Sochi 2014 Visitor Information for the Winter Olympic Games on the Moscow Embassy site.