Tourism in Russia
Text by Ian Mitchell
Last month I was invited to give a talk at the 9th Annual Moscow International Tourist Exposition, as part of a day-long series of presentations on the problems and possibilities of tourism in Russia in times of global economic crisis. Although I am not an expert on tourism as an industry, I am a travelwriter and so I spoke from the point of view of the consumer.
To me, the most iconic image of tourism in Russia is the sign at the cash desk of the Tretyakov Gallery—by any standards one of the world’s great visitor attractions —which says Russian citizens pay 150 rubles to enter and foreigners pay 250. If, by any chance, you happen to be with a Russian citizen who asks for two tickets and is sold two Russian ones, you will be stopped at the turnstile by a gruff, unsmiling official in a military-style uniform who will spot the fact that you are foreign and curtly refuse you entry until you queue up again and pay 250 roubles. This takes your ticket cost up to 400 roubles as the first ticket is wasted, and delays you for a further ten minutes or so. Visitor-friendly or what?
This sort of thing is not uncommon and goes a long way towards explaining why, though 11 million Russians travelled abroad in 2008, only 2.3 million foreigners visited the country. The conference was designed to address this imbalance.
The tourist industry in Russia employs about 5% of the labor force, which is half the proportion in the United States, and very much less than in many countries, like Iceland or Botswana, which have less to sell by way of cultural attractions and natural beauty.
In America, tourism contributes 9.5% of GDP. Since GDP of the USA is about eleven times that of Russia, the amazing fact is that the tourist industry in the United States is larger than the entire Russian economy, from Neftegas to nuclear missiles. Russia has a per-capita income that is one of the lowest in the developed world, and 10% unemployment. It would seem logical for the government to give the tourist industry a high priority. But it does not.
One example: to bring a family of four on holiday to Russia from Britain costs £1,000 for the visas alone. That is before flights, accommodation, food and spending money. You could buy an entire package holiday to Greece for the cost of those visas. So my questions at the conference were, first: why is Russia so uninterested in the money and jobs which tourism could bring? And, secondly: what can be done about it?
Part of my answer to the first question came from looking at the titles of the talks given by the other speakers. One was: “Generalizing the theoretical and practical research and experience in the solution of the problems facing the tourist industry.” Another was: “Social and psychological aspects of operations in tourism.” Finally: “The strategic thinking of managers taking administrative decisions about the system of education in the tourist industry.”
In that context, it was perhaps understandable that there was a general sense in the hall of sitting up and taking notice when I started my talk by saying: “If Moscow wants to increase tourist numbers, there are three simple but crucial steps it needs to take. The first is to increase the number of clean, budget- priced, family-orientated hotels. The second is to increase the number of clean, budget-priced, family-orientated hotels; and the third is to increase the number of clean, budget-priced, family-orientated hotels.”
I quoted Alexander Udalov, who recently wrote in AEB Business Quarterly: “Of the 175 hotels operating in Moscow today, no more than 30 offer what could be classed as international standard accommodation, and these are almost exclusively in the 4- or 5-star categories.”
The average cost of a night in a hotel in the Untied States is $60. In London, which has 18 million visitors per annum, nearly six times the figure for the whole of Russia, that rate is $115. In Moscow, it is $200.
This, I said, is very sad when you consider the range of attractions Moscow has to offer. First there is the fascinating range of small museums and other cultural assets which you can find all over the city. Most are not advertized. Some appear to be closed when you reach the door. But when you find them and get in, the displays are informative and the subject matter is often extremely interesting. I wrote about one of these, the Museum in the Dom na Naberezhnoy in Passport last May.
Next there is the wonderful sense of physical freedom in the Russian countryside, which can be easily reached if you are prepared to brave the tourist-unfriendly atmosphere at the railway stations, the dirt in the trains, the incomprehensibility of the timetables and the crowding.
Finally, I said, there are the warm, friendly, kind and interesting people of this vast and often baffling country. If only official Russia were more like them in-bound tourism would be a healthier industry, not least because for many people it is precisely the rough edges and the unpredictability which are appealing, especially in contrast to the increasingly overcommercialized resorts of Europe and elsewhere.
After my talk I was approached by many in the audience to tell me that they agreed with my views. The chairman of the session presented me with a beautiful book about the history of Moscow. He inscribed it on the title page, addressing me as “Gospodin Mitchell” – the first time I have ever had that honor. At least one person in an official position knows how to charm