Sputnik: Your company is one of the few companies which offer direct links between Russia’s Far East and the United States. How is it going now? What are the main obstacles to establishing more cooperation? What is happening at the moment?
Mark Dudley: We have several companies that have been working on this. Our head office, actually, is in Japan, InterAviation Japan and Japan Air Travel Marketing. Together with InterPacific Aviation and Marketing, we’ve been working for about ten years to develop this route. We have been investing a lot of money; it takes a lot of time, money and energy to get the route going. We operate flights not just between the United States and the Russian Far East, but also between Japan and the Russian Far East. To be honest, we haven’t been making much money so far; we are dedicated to the route, we feel that the Russian Far East has a lot of tourism potential, and we are ready to invest even more. Next year we hope to have 60 flights altogether between Japan and the Russian Far East flights and the US flights. But we’d also like to see Russian Far East regions be more active in promoting themselves in the United States. Several things are needed to develop tourism – of course, you need air transportation, you need infrastructure, you need the actual tourist activities like nature parks, museums, hotels, qualified tour operators; but if your target market doesn’t know anything about you, if they haven’t heard of you, you’re not going to get any tourists. So, one thing I’d like to see is Russian Far East regions develop a sort of a regional brand, not just each region independently, but a Russian Far East brand that combines all of the wonderful things of the Russian Far East, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Lake Baikal, the Mariinsky Theatre here in Vladivostok, Chekhov Museum in Sakhalin, tigers, bears, Arseniev, Krasheninnikov, all these things together to form a brand and then promote it more actively in North America, at travel shows, become members of associations, attend conferences, invite American tour operators and journalists on familiarity trips, fam trips, to the Russian Far East to experience all this for themselves. That’s kind of what I’d like to see.
Sputnik: The organisers of the Eastern Economic Forum here are setting up Far East Street right next to the beach here in the bay showing off what Far East regions have in their potential. Do you think they are on the right path? Is it the same direction you are talking about?
Mark Dudley: Yes and no. I’ve heard about the famous Kamchatka crab, I’m going to look at it a little bit later; I want to see how Kamchatka is presenting it. But, of course, all the regions; I’m afraid, I’m going to have excess baggage on the plane because I’m going to be collecting a lot of brochures from all the regions because I personally really want to promote all these regions through our website, our newsletter etc. The problem is it’s here, they are promoting it here; we need to do the same thing but in the United States. Of course, I don’t expect it on the same scale, moving Kamchatka’s big crab to a travel show in the US might be not cost-effective; but I’d love to see a delegation from the Russian Far East, maybe one person from each of several different regions, representing their region there. Russia knows how to promote. I mean, look at this great event that you’ve put together, it’s an excellent show. I’m sure that Far Eastern Street down by the water is excellent; I’ve been to similar things, fantastic. You just need to be less shy and try presenting yourself in the United States in the same way.
Sputnik: We see that the relations between the US and Russia on the governmental level are not at their best at the moment. Do you think that sanctions are in the way of such cooperation?
Mark Dudley: No, I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I think Russia had an image problem before the sanctions were introduced in terms of people wanting to travel here. If you talk to experts in terms of what natural resources and sights there are in the Russian Far East we are seeing, it occupies one of the highest ranks, it’s very high-ranking; you have UNESCO World Heritage sights, you have rare animals and wildlife here, you have nature parks. But if you ask tour operators where their clients what to go, Russia is at the bottom of the list. There is an organisation, Adventure Travel Trade Association; they did this survey amongst their members, large companies and small companies, and, unfortunately, nobody was really interested in Russia. But it’s not because of sanctions, it’s not because of propaganda, it’s not because of Russophobia; it’s been this way since before the relations got worse. It’s because the Russian Far East is just a blank spot on the traveller’s map, and nobody really knows about it. I mean, travellers go to other countries that we have relationships with; there’s a distinction between tourism and politics. So, I’m not too concerned about sanctions; another big benefit to tourism is that it’s not impacted by sanctions, it’s probably one of the areas of business with the greatest potential of anything here at this forum because sanctions don’t impact it. But you also need to remember that the US-Russia relations fluctuate like a pendulum for the last 200 years; you can look at how we are great friends during the Civil War, shortly after it we aren’t, it keeps going like this. So, right now when relations are not at their best level, it’s, probably, the best time to be preparing for an improved period.
*Views expressed in this article are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.