Off The Rails: Russia Tries To Make Lake Baikal Fit For Tourists
MOSCOW - The 9,265-kilometer trip across Russia, from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, via the Transiberian Railroad, the world's longest railroad, is the most popular product for the British tour operator Russia Experience.
The trip is 16 days long, with a full week spent on the train. Tourists can decide how to spend the rest – a few days in Saint Petersburg, or a stop in Perm for fans of Doctor Zhivago. For many, though, the experience on the train is an attraction in and of itself.
But the tour’s biggest attraction is Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest, clearest, oldest and most voluminous lake, located near Irkutsk in Siberia and containing around 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water.
The British tour agency notes that the train station is relatively new, but is mute on everything that awaits tourists on the shores of Baikal.
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On the shores of Lake Baikal - Photo: Vladislav Bezrukov
Every year, foreign tourists come to take the Baikal train around the whole lake, look at ancient pine trees and are ready for any adventure. There are foreign tourists who take part in the winter marathon over the frozen lake, who live with local families and even spend the night at “hotels” that barely have electricity or running water. One tourist described the toilets as a “long desk with holes.”
“Interest in the Baikal trip has been increasing around 10-20% per year,” says Odetta Fussi, sales director for Russia Experience. “Ten or 15 years ago, we would have sent 30 to 40 people on that trip, last year we sent around 800 tourists, each one paying between $4,000 and $8,000 for the trip."
Fussi says the typical client has also changed – instead of students who are prepared for anything, we are getting more established travelers between the ages of 35 and 60.”
She politely mentions that if the tourism infrastructure were somewhat more comfortable than “long desk with holes” toilets, the number of tourists to Baikal would be substantially higher. At the moment, Baikal attracts less than 300,000 tourists every year, and of that, only about 10% are foreign tourists.
Too much politics
The government has shown its interest in developing tourism in Baikal by opening two special economic zones around the lake – one on the west side and one on the east side, both supposed to be geared towards tourism development. The eastern zone was supposed to have developed better tourism infrastructure by 2012.
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Photo: Anton Lepashov
The western special economic zone, on the other hand, exists mainly on paper, although the zone was adopted in 2007. The first four years were spent mainly shifting the zone’s borders and changing the leaders, and the few tour operators attracted to work in the area were state-owned and plagued with scandals in both the past and the present.
The region is still working on attracting private investors, and local experts doubt that serious investors will ever materialize.
“In the Irkutsk Special Economic Zone there is too much politics going on,” explains Sergei Perevosnikov, the founder of Baikal Info, a local tourism portal. “Industrial investors that have come to the area will continue to invest in manufacturing, not in tourism, and thanks to their relationship with the local politicians, they will just use the special economic zone as a way to keep manufacturing in the area,” says Perevosnikov.
There’s a little more going on in the Eastern special economic zone, where at least a lakeside energy and water supply system has been built. At the end of last year, construction started on hotels; the airport in Ulan-Ude, the closest city, was reconstructed and most importantly, a new road from Ulan-Ude to Baikal was built.
There has also been an accompanying increase in tourism – of around 20-30% per year, mostly coming from the increase in Chinese tourists, which are visiting all of Russia in higher numbers. The eastern side of Baikal also has much more hotels, most owned by a company called Rusresorts.
No infrastructure, no investment
Experts, however, are not convinced that the special economic zone will help increase development around Baikal. “Not a single sane investor would put money in Baikal,” says Aleksander Kindeev, general director of the Business Hospitality Group. “You can put money into an area where there is already some kind of infrastructure. Baikal is basically cut off from the world, and aside from adventure tourism, in the foreseeable future nothing else is going to be there.”
Other experts point to the fact that Baikal has a very short tourism season, which makes profitable tourism investments substantially harder.
But there is still hope that things might change in 10-15 years. For example, last year a new hotel opened on one of Baikal’s islands, backed by investors that no one had every heard of. The Baikal View Hotel describes itself on its website as “the only hotel on the Olkhon island that provides world-class lodging and dining. That might not sound like a breakthrough, but there are other, smaller developments opening around the lake, that taken together might raise the bar for tourist accommodations – and toilet facilities – in the whole Baikal region.