Icy water diving, space tourism, reindeer safari in the tundra and military style holidays - driving tanks and flying combat aircraft - are no longer the most exotic tourist products on offer in Russia. Affluent foreign tourists are now trying out the role of Russian prison inmates!
The country's tourist market is growing and offering increasingly new options. Russian travel agents state the number of foreign tourists visiting Russia grew by 10-15% in 2003. Russia has every chance of breaking through to the ten most popular tourist destinations, according to the World Tourist Organisation.
"It is not only the capital that is radically changing, looking different and becoming more interesting for travellers," says Sergei Shpilko, president of the Russian Union of the Tourist Industry (RST). "The provinces, which have realised the possible benefits of tourism, are trying to prove that they also deserve foreigners' attention. Historical and cultural monuments are being restored, new museums built, and old ones updated." The regions are also betting on local exotica. This is a no-lose situation. "They have something to show: ancient fortresses, stone etchings, Siberian shamanism, Khakass stone carving and Chukotka bone carving," says Mr Shpilko. "However, this kind of cultural 'exclusive' is not the only thing that can attract foreigners." Russia's geography is its trump card: it has climates and natural landscapes to suit all tastes. "Russia has great possibilities in this respect," says Sergei Shpilko. "There are still many untouched areas, which are so attractive for tourists, including forest reserves. The Russian North, Altai, Kamchatka, Yakutia (Sakha), Khakassia, Tuva - all this is a real tourist bonanza." The regions are cultivating the most diverse types of tourism. For example, Yakutia, which is two thirds covered by natural parks, offers hunting and fishing, as well as unique ornithological tourism. There are cruise programmes along the River Lena, as well as the Diamond Yakutia tours - for those who want to see diamond extraction and cutting with their own eyes and then buy the perfect diamond.
The Krasnodar Territory in southern Russia offers tourists beaches and mountain skiing plus diving, windsurfing, snowboard, mountaineering and pot-holing. A popular ski resort is Krasnaya Polyana, which can count President Vladimir Putin as one of its fans. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the Krasnodar Territory leads the way in attracting investment.
Given state support, Russia could become a favourite destination for spa visitors.
According to the frontier service's data, about 3,152,000 foreign tourists visited Russia last year: 289,000 Germans, 126,000 Americans, 118,000 French citizens, 114,000 Italians and 91,000 Britons. In 2002, these figures were 287,000, 110,000, 80,000, 102,000 and 67,000, respectively.
The growth in demand is there for all to see. According to various estimates, the demand for some tours that have been run since Soviet times is still being only half met. These include packages to Moscow, St Petersburg, the Golden Ring (Sergiyev Posad, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Vladimir), the Volga area, as well as Russia's north and northwest with Valaam Island, Arkhangelsk, Vologda, Novgorod and Pskov.
"We cannot fully meet demand, first of all, because of the lack of hotel rooms," explains Sergei Shpilko. "In Moscow and St. Petersburg, regional centres and even cities that were considered to be tourist outsiders before, business-class hotels have been built. Small hotels have also started to appear. However, this is not enough to meet the mass tourist demand. Russia still does not have enough 2-3-star hotels to cater for a sustainable inflow of tourists." The state intends to stimulate the development of the hotel network and is studying the experience of Spain, France and Austria, where hotel complexes use the nation's historical and architectural heritage. This model suits Russia, which has more than enough of its own historical and architectural monuments. Any outlays will soon be reimbursed: according to the information of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, The average tourist spends six and half days and 1,300 euros in Russia.
In addition, the RST president is convinced that the country needs to bring its visa requirements up to the level of the developed nations. "So far, the visa regime is too complicated and there is no parity in the level of visa duties," he says. "An urgent visa to Russia costs hundreds of dollars." Mr Shpilko suggests a solution to the problem would be to ease visa requirements with developed countries unilaterally, following the example of China, Japan and South Korea.
Transport problems also spoil Russia's image. According to a survey of foreign tourists conducted by the state committee for statistics, over 30% of the respondents pointed to the need to develop transport. "Interestingly, a mere 6% were more concerned about security, 8% public catering and 7% entertainment," Sergei Shpilko comments. "In all these spheres, especially, in the restaurant business, marked progress has been achieved." At the same time, although the demand for river and sea cruises is high, we do not have enough cruise ships and their unimpeded entry in ports, for example, in the Far East, is far from always guaranteed. Indeed, Mr Shpilko points to the need to develop short-range planes because of a helicopter shortage and the fact that domestic flights are too expensive, while the country's buses also need to be modernised.
The country has begun energetically promoting its image abroad as part of the Concept for the Development of Tourism in the Russian Federation Until 2005. Videos about Russian regions have been shot and translated into European languages, while brochures, guides and reference books have been published. The relevant publications now appear in the foreign press. Moreover, the country is a constant fixture at international tourist exhibitions in Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.