Russian visits to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent are in high demand, travel agencies say, since they started offering "debit-card" tours with the aim of obtaining Mastercard and VISA cards from Uzbek banks.
Mastercard and VISA cards issued in Russia can’t be used abroad for international online payments since the U.S. card giants suspended their operation in the country on March 6 due to Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
The VEDI Group, which has offices in Moscow and 10 other Russian cities, became the first Russian travel agency on March 23 to offer its clients a special package called "For VISA to Uzbekistan."
The tour operator was once known for organizing COVID-19 vaccine tours abroad for Russians who preferred a Western-made jab to their homemade Sputnik ones.
The VEDI Group’s Uzbekistan package -- at a fixed price of 23,000 rubles (about $280) for two nights and three days -- does not include any sightseeing in Tashkent.
Instead, it organizes a visit to a local bank where clients open an account and get their debit cards. Applications and appointments are all arranged in advance by the travel agency and its Uzbek partners.
The first VEDI Group debit-card tourists are scheduled to fly to Tashkent on April 3. Prices for flight tickets are charged separately.
Meanwhile, several other Russian travel agencies, such as BSI Group and Russky Express, have already begun offering similar packages to Tashkent.
Demand for such trips is high, with customers contacting tour agencies with enquiries, Russian media reported, citing travel agents.
Agencies are also exploring other destinations for "credit-card tourism," such as Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.
Factors such as simple requirements, speed, and affordable fees have made Uzbekistan the most popular choice so far for debit-card hunters.
According to a VEDI Group ad, it takes only a day for Russian clients to get their cards.
The travel agent organizes the paperwork and bank appointments in advance. All the clients are required to do is to show up in person with their passports and sign documents. Customers also don’t need to have a valid address in Uzbekistan.
After returning to Russia, the clients can top-up their bank balance, when needed, transferring money by various means including the Russian payment system Zolotaya Korona.
Uzbek banks also offer Russian-language mobile applications as well as 24-hour customer service hot lines, the ad says.
The list of Uzbek banks willing to open accounts for Russian clients include Asaka Bank, Kapital Bank, and Ipak Yoli.
The clients are free to open an account in the local currency, the som, or choose dollar or euro accounts.
In the Kapital Bank, for example, the fee for applying for a Mastercard or VISA card is $2.50 and $5, respectively. It also requires a symbolic deposit of $5 for a VISA and 10 euros for a Mastercard.
Russian media reports that it takes much longer -- up to six working days -- to get a card from local banks in Armenia. Armenian banks also often require a local home address or a six-month lease contract as proof of an address in Armenia.
Some banks in Georgia and Turkey also require foreigners to have a local address in order to open a bank account. Other difficult requirements include a high deposit for nonresidents.
Some Kazakhs are also offering to be a mediator for Russians who want to get cards in Kazakhstan.
They claim that a Russian can open bank accounts through a third party in Kazakhstan without having to leave Russia.
The mediator’s service includes applying for a local individual identification number and a Kazakh phone number before applying for a bank account and subsequently getting a card. Biometrics and other details can be submitted online, various articles and blogs claim.
Some bloggers say mediators have already helped “dozens” of Russians to successfully receive debit cards in Kazakhstan.
But Russian experts warn the customers to be cautious with services being offered by unknown individuals or firms. They urge Russians to carefully choose their tour operators in their debit-card journey, and to only work with reputable companies.
Russians can use their new cards only while traveling abroad, as Mastercard and VISA cards issued in Uzbekistan or any other foreign country cannot be used inside Russia.
Russian officials also remind people to inform the tax authorities about their foreign bank accounts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin barred residents from transferring money abroad, including to their own bank accounts, as of March 1.
But it seems the ban doesn’t apply to countries that are not party to the sanctions on Moscow, such as Uzbekistan. Russian residents have a monthly limit equal to $5,000 that they can transfer abroad.
VISA and Mastercard were among hundreds of Western companies that halted their operations in Russia due to the sanctions precipitated by the war in Ukraine.
Their existing cards issued by Russian banks can only be used inside the country until they reach their expiry dates, as they will not be renewed.
Cards issued by Russia’s domestic system, Mir, are only accepted by a small number of countries, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, along with the Uzbek cards some travel agencies also note the opportunity for designer shopping and to explore the real estate market in Uzbekistan.
It seems aimed at appealing to the new realities that Russians face: Because of the sanctions, many of those who like designer goods will be deprived of their favorite brands as the big international companies leave Russia.