2 July 2012, 15:48

Russian Arctic to thaw up for tourism

Russian Arctic to thaw up for tourism

Russia’s youngest national park, the “Russian Arctic,” is marking its third anniversary. But what’s even more important, the park has recently announced its intent to get more tourist-friendly and build four visitor centers 900 kilometers away from the Arctic Pole – three on the far off Archipelagos of Franz Josef Land and one on the northern ridge of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago.

The “Russian Arctic” national park stretches out over 1,500 million hectares of icebound land mass. During the Soviet era, this vast area was closed off from tourists, who were only let to roam into these reaches after the military pulled out. Unlike icy Alaska in the US and Norway’s Spitsbergen, the lands that came to be known as the “Russian Arctic” national park have never had an indigenous population of their own. The park can be described as unique for several reasons, its Deputy Director Viktor Kuznetsov says.

“Eighty per cent of these vast island territories are locked up with ice. They’re separated from the mainland and are hard to reach. The islands are inhabited by rare Red Book animals, such as walruses, polar bears and extensive seabird colonies, which are estimated at up to hundreds of birds during summer time.”

“Among other precious animal species that can be spotted in the park are bowhead whales, driven to the brink of extinction in the 19th century, floe rats and northern seagulls. Yet, picturesque landscapes and unique wildlife are only available to visitors during the short summer period, since the park can only be reached by sea from the nearest Murmansk and Arkhangelsk ports due to severe weather outbreaks.”

Tourists are forced to stay aboard the cruise liner almost all the time. Only occasionally are they allowed to go ashore for a few hours to have a closer look at Arctic wonders. Viktor Kuznetsov attributes this requirement to the extreme character of such trips.

“The conditions are far from comfy. We have to bring tourists to the shore in rubber boats. And ice conditions may vary. Sometimes we have to urgently gather up people if we spot polar bears in the vicinity. This has happened a few times before.”

“Tourists also take great interest in the history of Arctic explorations, carried out by Holland’s Vitus Bering and Russia’s seamen Georgy Sedov and Georgy Brusilov. Over the last tourist season, the park welcomed eleven cruise groups, seven ships from Russia, US and Australia, as well as 865 people from all over the world. Ninety per cent of all tourists come from China, Japan, Australia, US and European countries. Among the vessels that anchored in national park waters were three Russian yachts, the first tourist yachts that ever sailed to the Arctic shores. This year the park expects to attract twice as many visitors.”

“Four tourist hubs will soon be open in the “Russian Arctic,” hosting visitor centers, heated viewing platforms, tourist paths and recreation facilities. The park has also taken up creating new extreme-tourism routes within its boundaries. The only hurdle that stands in the way of prolific Arctic tourism in Russia is the cost of sea cruises, which ranges from 10 to 20 thousand dollars. In the future, tourists will be flown to the park by helicopters or small planes, granted abandoned Soviet-time air fields are still there.”

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