By Aashish Mishra Kathmandu, July 20: Nepal is fast becoming an attractive destination for Russian tourists. According to the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Nepal, there had been a steady increase in the tourist flow from Russia to Nepal before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As per its data, 4,900 Russian tourists visited Nepal in 2015. In 2019, the number increased by more than 100 per cent and reached 10,300. Nepal is especially popular among Russian Buddhists who are eager to visit the holy places of the country, shared Viktor Viktorovich Evseev, Minister-Counsellor and deputy head of mission at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Nepal. He informed that the Buddhists in Russia wanted to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, and that there were plans to construct a temple there, the cost of which would be borne by Russian Buddhists. “The citizens of Russia have a very positive view of Nepal and the Nepali people. I am confident that Russians will visit in big numbers after the pandemic is over,” Evseev said. The Minister-Counsellor noted that Russians had continued to arrive in Nepal despite the difficulties created by the pandemic. Even though Nepal and Russia, like most of the world, had imposed strict travel restrictions, 1,716 Russians still arrived at the Tribhuvan International Airport in 2020. In 2021 too, 1,073 Russian tourists had arrived in Nepal till June. Talking on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Nepal and Russia (then Soviet Union), Evseev stated that the embassy was also working to connect the two countries with direct flights to further facilitate travel and tourism. “We are trying to restart flights between Moscow and Kathmandu but the pandemic has hindered our progress,” he said. Russia’s largest airline and de facto national flag carrier - Aeroflot – stopped flying to Kathmandu from January 13, 2002, citing a lack of profit on this route. Nevertheless, it still maintains the right to operate direct flights to Nepal and has stated on previous occasions that it will start flying this route if it sees commercial viability. In addition to tourism, Russia also provides 18 scholarships for Nepali students every year to study in Russian universities. This also helps boost interaction between the people of the two countries, Evseev said. Meanwhile, on May 28, President Bidya Devi Bhandari wrote to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin requesting Russia to help Nepal fight against the coronavirus by providing the Sputnik V vaccine. In this regard, Evseev elaborated that the embassy was only tasked with registering the vaccine in Nepal, which it did in April. “The Nepali authorities and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Russia's sovereign wealth fund, are directly negotiating with each other to sort out the details of the procurement and supply of vaccines,” he shared. However, he did mention that the embassy was working to get Russia’s single-dose vaccine, dubbed Sputnik Light, approved for emergency use in Nepal. Over the past 65 years, Nepal and Russia’s relationships have seen many highs. However, Minister-Counsellor Evseev felt that the present level of engagement between the two countries was not adequate. “Both countries are occupied with their domestic affairs at the moment. But we hope to deepen our ties and widen our engagement based on mutual respect, non-interference and adherence to international law,” Evseev stated. The then Kingdom of Nepal and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) established diplomatic relations on July 20, 1956. Following the USSR’s collapse, Nepal extended full and formal diplomatic recognition to the Russian Federation as a sovereign and independent state on December 28, 1991. Nepal and the Russian Federation maintain a residential diplomatic presence in each other’s capital cities.