Norway’s tiny little town of Kirkenes is likely as far away from capital shopping malls in Oslo as possible to travel. The town has however developed to be an attractive shopping destination for neighboring cities on Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Russian language ad posters and Russian speaking employees are common.
Maria Kondrat, Maria Osipova and Maria Goman frequently drive to Kirkenes for shopping.
“There are many good offers in the shops. The Buy 3 – Pay 2 offers for clothing are not a bad idea when we are three girls traveling together,” smiles Maria Osipova. “In addition to the good offers we get exemption from VAT, reducing the prices further 20 percent,” she says.
Today, the three Murmansk ladies have also filled up their bags with textiles, planning to sew curtains when back in Murmansk.
“Cafes in Kirkenes are mostly too expensive, but we love to walk around, look and take photos. This town is just so different from our buildings at home,” says Maria Goman.
Kirkenes is a 20 minute drive from the check-point at the Russian, Norwegian border where all travelers cross. The Storskog check-point experiences busy days, despite being the northernmost gateway between Russia and Europe.
“Border-crossings have increased by a third the first half of 2013,” says Stein Hansen. He is head of the immigration control at Storskog. The 32 percent boost in traffic comes on top of a record high peak in 2012 of 252,000 border-crossings.
“By year end I expect the number to increase to 310,000 maybe as high as 330,000,” says Stein Hansen.
January, with Russian Christmas days off, is normally peak month for border-crossing shoppers. This year, however, June counted 24,382 border-crossings compared with 23,967 in January. And more are coming.
There is nothing that reminds of relaxing summer hours at Norway’s visa center in Murmansk. “We had some 80 applicants per day on average last week, in addition to those on average 30 applicants that come directly to the Consulate General,” says Marit Egholm Jacobsen. She is head of the visa-section at Norway’s diplomatic mission to Murmansk. In May and early June, some 160 applicants delivered their papers every day.
The employees at the visa-section are working day and night to handle all applications. “Unfortunate, we need up to 15 days to issue a visa, but we are doing our best to speed up the process,” says Marit Egholm Jacobsen.
In June, 37 percent more visas were issued than the same month last year. Most of the more than 15,000 visas issued in Murmansk so far in 2013 are valid for one, three or even five years, so the increase at Russia’s border to Norway will surely peak even more in the time to come.
A challenge at the border check-point is the increasing long queue of vehicles. Still, many of the cross-border shoppers travel in minibuses, but the number of private cars grows from month to month. In June, 9,704 vehicles crossed the border at Storskog, three times as many as in June 2010. The check-point is not dimensioned to meet the traffic boost. In early June, Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visited the border check-point together with his Russian colleague Dmitri Medvedev. Jens Stoltenberg could however not promise any funding to the longed for new check-point. He told BarentsObserver that possible funding to a new and modern check-point to meet the boom in traffic is a question for the annual budgets (see video interview).
Stoltenberg gave the same answer to BarentsObserver in 2011.