food / travel

Off The Rails: Russia Tries To Make Lake Baikal Fit For Tourists

Ogoi island on Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest, clearest, oldest and most voluminous lake
Ogoi island on Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest, clearest, oldest and most voluminous lake
Siranush Sharoyan

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.

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.

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.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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