Despite Russia’s prominence as far as its proliferation of World Heritage listed cultural and natural sites goes, the country is struggling to have much of an impact on world tourism, with the travel industry accounting for just 3% of its gross domestic product.
Compare that with say, Malta, whose tourist industry accounts for 35% of the gross domestic product, and you’ll see what we are getting at.
What’s worse, the number of visitors to Russia dropped to 2.1 million last year, down 7% on 2009’s total.
“And this trend is likely to continue,” complained Vladimir Kantorovich of the Russian Association of Tour Operators in an interview with RIA Novosti news.
The problems with Russia’s tourism industry are numerous. Despite its huge potential, things such as the visa issue, a poor infrastructure, the language barrier and crime all serve to put off travelers from coming here.
“I wanted to come to Russia because I love its history and its culture, and I wanted to meet some Russian people,” says Laura, a French student traveling in Moscow.
“I was very surprised to see that virtually no one speaks English here, and they seem almost sick of tourists in Moscow. Even just trying to order a meal can be a real challenge.”
As well as these problems, travel industry insiders point to the government’s failure to develop the country for tourism. Indeed, Russia only ranks 91 in the world with regards to tourism spending, behind countries such as Cambodia, Gambia and Paraguay.
According to Yury Bazrykin of the Russian Union of Travel Industry, the country spends an average of just 0.6 Euros to attract each tourist who visits the country, a long way short of the world average of 6 Euros a person.
The Moscow government doesn’t spend its budget very well, says Kantarovich. They waste money on events like the Maslenitsa, which is a festival that only attracts Russians. Meanwhile, foreign tourists are struggling to make their way around the capital because English-language street signs are virtually non-existent.
“It would be great to visit Siberia and see what life there is like in the small villages,” dreams Laura.
The trouble is, these regions are well off the beaten track, and show little to no interest in attracting foreign visitors.
As it stands, more than 60% of tourism in Russia is confined to Moscow, the cities surrounding the capital (known as the Golden Ring cities), and St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, wonderful World Heritage sites such as the Kamchatska Peninsula with its unique flora and fauna and its volcanoes, and Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, receive less than 2% of the country’s tourist visitors, mainly due to the poor infrastructure in the country.
And it’s not only the issues raised above which are putting off tourists. The cost of travel in Russia is also prohibitive. Laura was far from impressed, saying “I was amazed that Moscow was more expensive that Paris even, but then maybe I just don’t know any cheap places.”
According to the Frank Knight real estate company, Moscow is one of the most expensive cities for hotel accommodation in the world, with average room rates approaching $237, compared to just $230 in Paris, $189 in Berlin, and just $141 in Prague.
Tourists are often charged more than Russians as well, and not just by the street vendors. For instance, the Tretyakov Gallery, one of Moscow’s more popular art venues, charges foreigners 360 Rubles for entry, while locals get charged half this price, even though the practice of charging foreigners more was banned in the 1990’s.