From the volcanoes
and geysers of Kamchatka, through the Siberian taiga to the mineral spas
around the Black Sea coast, it cannot be said Russia has nothing to offer
the average tourist.
considered by the World Tourism Organization a country with great potential
for tourism development.
But figures cited by tourism experts showed
that 70 percent to 80 percent of the 3.5 million foreign tourists that came
to the county last year rarely ventured farther than Moscow, St. Petersburg
and perhaps the Golden Ring.
Most foreigners don't know what they are
missing, said Sergei Shpilko, president of the Russian Association of Travel
Agents, or RATA. They don't realize they could be taking a cruise along
the waters of the Volga, bathing in hot springs surrounded by volcanoes in
Kamchatka or taking a boat over the crystal-clear waters of Lake Baikal.
But this goes for quite a few Russians too,
he added. For 70 years, access to a large part of the country was restricted
for many Russians; and then with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of
these local tourists headed off abroad.
An alternative Seven Wonders of the World
could easily be unearthed on Russia's territory, if only tourists and
governments were willing to dig them out, experts said.
Most agree it is difficult to tie Russia down
to only seven wonders -- yet the country still has to catch on as an
important destination internationally.
Russia is probably best known for its
well-traipsed route of St. Petersburg and Moscow -- the introduction points
for the average tourist and about as far as many are likely to venture.
Considered the heart of Russia, Moscow is
described by travel operators as a place where ancient Russia meets the
Soviet Union and capitalism -- illustrated by the golden onion domes of the
Kremlin's Orthodox churches, which look out past Lenin's mausoleum and over
the massive GUM shopping complex.
St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is
considered to be a more European capital. The creation of Peter the Great,
it is best know for its 18th- and 19th-century palaces; the Peter and Paul
fortress, a former prison; the Hermitage Museum; and the White Nights.
Often favored over Moscow by tourists, St.
Petersburg is one of the few cities that has allocated money from its budget
-- around 14 million rubles ($491,000) -- to support the development of
Together with the regional authorities, RATA
has produced a program it hopes to realize for the 300-year anniversary of
the city in 2003 that includes the construction of a tourist-information
office -- a feature lacking in most Russian cities and regions.
"Most people only come [to St. Petersburg]
once," said Sergei Korneyev, president of the city's RATA branch. "They do
the standard program; they see the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul fortress
and the opening of the bridges, and they think it is all that is interesting
about St. Petersburg."
In a bid to change that view, the city hopes
to offer theater premieres and jazz and cultural festivals in its impressive
courtyards and to capitalize on its history as the last seat of the imperial
Korneyev said St. Petersburg last year
attracted around 2 million Russian and foreign tourists, compared to 1.8
million the year before. Many tourists come from Scandinavian countries for
long weekends, and most cultural tourists tend to be middle-aged Europeans.
2. The Golden Ring
The Golden Ring is a group of towns and
cities -- including Suzdal, Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Kostroma and others -- that
once played an important politcal, spiritual and cultural role in ancient
Rus. They offer a host of restored and abandoned churches, monasteries and
fortresses, rich museums and preserved wooden villages.
Whereas in the mid-1980s, the circuit would
draw 2 million to 3 million foreign tourists a year, by 1999 this figure had
dropped to around 200,000, said Irina Solyankina, head of domestic tourism
at Moscow-based travel company Vand International.
Now companies are promoting their cruises and
tours more to Russian tourists in a bid to attract them to the region, and
are offering different itineraries such as tours focusing on the ring's
industrial heritage. There is also increased demand for tours for Russian
schoolchildren, Solyankina said.
Set on the Black Sea coast against the
backdrop of the snow-capped Caucasus mountains, the beach resort town Sochi
was for a long time the place to spend a vacation, with its subtropical
climate, warm seas, arboretum and gardens.
The breakup of the Soviet Union saw many
Russians jetting off abroad, and Sochi's yearly tourist intake fell. Last
year, however, as a result of the 1998 financial meltdown, Russians had less
cash for trips abroad and many returned to resorts they knew well, resulting
in a good tourist season for Sochi.
Most tourists visit Sochi to relax on the
beaches, swim in the sea and partake of its favorable climate; but its
mineral spas and sanatoriums make it an ideal health resort. Its healing
waters attract people seeking to cure rheumatism and recover from illnesses.
Anapa, also on Russia's Black Sea coast, has
the reputation of being the best curative spa town for children.
Yevgeny Ivannikov of the Sochi city
administration tourism committee said the town has great potential, but it
still lacks direct flights to places in Europe and America.
He said the city would benefit greatly by
improving its infrastructure base, and could draw tourists to the area year
round by developing better ski-resort facilities at nearby Krasnaya Polyana,
a 600-meter-high settlement set in the mountains and alpine glades.
For those seeking a natural high, Russia's
best attractions may be the Altai and Caucasus mountains.
Untouched, unharmed and largely undiscovered
by Western tourists, the so-called golden mountains of Russia's Altai
republic are noted for being among the most beautiful and primordial parts
The Altai mountain chain is set in a rich and
diverse landscape of steppe, taiga and semi-desert, and stretches about
2,000 kilometers from Mongolia's Gobi Desert to the West Siberian Plain,
through Chinese, Mongolian, Russian and Kazak territory.
A report called Tourism Development in the
Altai Republic, prepared as part of United Nations Development Program
research into the state of the travel industry, notes the primordial
scenery, the exceptionally clear water of Lake Teletskoye and the 200,000
rivers and lakes in the region. Mountainous and inhabited by about 200,000
people, Altai is known for its mysterious rock drawings, tombs beneath
mounds and ancient archaeological treasures.
In 1999, the Altai republic received about
200,000 tourists, but the flow of visitors was unorganized and could pose an
environmental danger to the area, according to the UNDP report, which was
released at a Moscow conference on tourism development in March.
Altai has great opportunities to develop
ecological and cultural tourism, the report notes, and it has resorts for
tourists, but these are five hours away from the international airport at
Barnaul and are not connected to one another. Access to some areas is
difficult and sometimes only possible by helicopter, horseback or foot.
Areas of the Caucasus mountains, which rise
dramatically above the Black Sea coast and run down to the Caspian Sea, are
also noted by groups such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization for their plant diversity, subalpine pastures grazed by wild
animals and lack of human disturbance.
Here, one can go skiing, scale Europe's
highest peak -- the 5,642-meter Mount Elbrus -- and relax at the spas of
Home to a range of cultures, peoples and
languages, the Caucasus also stretch into the more troubled regions of
Dagestan and Chechnya, so travel is unsafe in some areas.
5. Far East
Getting out of the airplane at Kamchatka, one
is surrounded on three sides by volcanoes in a land of the most amazing
virgin nature, RATA's Shpilko said.
Kamchatka, a more than 1,000-kilometer-long
peninsula dividing the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean, is said to be
one of the least explored regions on Earth.
The most amazing attraction, Shpilko said, is
the Valley of the Geysers in Kronotsky National Park, which was only
discovered in the 1940s. Its 180 or more volcanoes, thermal activity, hot
springs, heated rivers and geysers should be enough to attract any tourist
in their right mind. Inhabited by less than one person per square kilometer,
the peninsula boasts at least 14,000 rivers, 10,000 lakes, thousands of
brown bears and sable, and hundreds of bird and plant species indigenous to
Once closed to foreigners, the region last
year attracted 4,000 visitors, said Viktor Shuslin, Kamchatka's Vladivostok
Air representative. Many people flew over from America and Japan for the
chance to hunt and fish, said Frederic Claus, a program officer with the
UNDP, but this type of tourism could pose a threat to the natural
environment. There is great potential for cultural and ecological tourism on
Kamchatka, he added, but there are also problems.
"It is a beautiful wilderness, but there are
no roads and the only means of transport is helicopter. But now all
helicopters are in the hands of one company, so the prices are
Lying on the very edge of Russia, Vladivostok
is known as one the last Russian stops on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Founded as a military outpost in 1860, Vladivostok soon grew in importance
as an international trading port.
The city, which is home to the Russian
Pacific Fleet, was closed to foreigners for more than 30 years due to its
increasing military role.
Now Vladivostok is considered to be an
attractive, lively city centered around hills overlooking the Golden Horn
6. Lakes and Rivers
A holiday pursuit popular among Russians but
rarely tried by foreigners is to take the pulse of the country by plying its
main artery, the Volga.
The 3,700-kilometer-long river winds its way
past republics and cities with varied environments, religions and economies,
but all of which hold the Volga as something central to their cultural
Cruises can take the would-be sailors from
Moscow to the Golden Ring town of Yaroslavl, past former trading center
Nizhny Novgorod, through virgin forests to the Moslem Tartarstan Republic
and down to the Astrakhan delta.
But among the best waters to ply are the
crystal-clear depths of the pearl of Siberia -- Lake Baikal -- one of the
genuine Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
An impressive spectacle near the border of
Russia and Mongolia, Lake Baikal is 636 kilometers long and 80 kilometers
wide -- and is the world's deepest lake.
Surrounded by forests and mountain peaks, the
waters are transparent to a depth of 40 meters in the summer, and freeze
over so thick in the winter that the Trans-Siberian Railroad once ran over
The lake has more than 2,000 recorded plant
and animal species -- bears, elk, lynx, sables, freshwater seal, trout,
salmon and sturgeon. It is fed by 336 rivers, with only one river feeding
However, its ecological system is threatened
by overfishing and pollution from the Senga River and the Baikal Pulp and
The nearby city of Irkutsk, an old merchant
town on the tea-trading road between Russia and China that developed into a
scientific and industrial center during Soviet times, provides easy access
to Lake Baikal.
But the eastern shore of Baikal in Buryatia
is less explored, and contains some amazing flora and fauna, national parks
and a most picturesque landscape. A spokesman for RATA in the Buryatia
region said that last year the region received 35,000 tourists, of which
24,000 were Russian tourists and 11,000 were foreign, mainly from Asian
countries such as Japan and China. However, it has a less-developed
infrastructure, with fewer roads, restaurants and places to stay, and no
international airport. The best way to arrive is perhaps by our seventh
wonder, one of the world's great train journeys.
7. Trans-Siberian Railroad
Siberia tends to conjure up images of frozen
wastelands and political prisoners exiled to labor camps, but the region has
many natural, historical and cultural wonders waiting to be explored.
One of the most famous ways to explore
Siberia's vast expanse -- and probably the dream of many a foreigner -- is
the mythical Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is now the
longest continuous rail line on earth. Lake Baikal, Ulan Ude in Buryatia and
Vladivostok, Far East, are all along the journey. The mammoth trip over
seven days and across eight time zones can transport a traveler from Moscow
to Irkutsk and then Vladivostok. Other popular options are the
Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian lines, which take travellers to Ulan
Bator and Beijing.
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