Military holidays: Tanks for the memory

Fred Weir reports from Moscow on the tourist appeal of Cold War weaponry

There was a time when a trip to the Soviet Union was the ultimate Cold War thrill. Western travellers would endure bad food, lumpy hotel beds and propaganda lectures from surly Intourist guides, just for that peek at life behind the Iron Curtain.

There was a time when a trip to the Soviet Union was the ultimate Cold War thrill. Western travellers would endure bad food, lumpy hotel beds and propaganda lectures from surly Intourist guides, just for that peek at life behind the Iron Curtain.

The bumpy roads, tepid showers and indifferent service remain, but the USSR is no more. A mere 45,000 British tourists bothered to visit Russia last year, mostly to troop through St Petersburg's art museums or see Moscow's Kremlin and Red Square.

But now a company with the ironic name of Friendship Roads is trying to market that World War Three experience, without the fatal effects.

For a price, tourists can fulfill their most outlandish Cold War fantasies by getting behind the controls of a MiG fighter, driving a T-80 tank or firing a Kalashnikov rifle.

"Just now this is only for the adventurous few," says Alexander Chistakhodov, the agency's general director. "But we see this as a big area of growth. A lot of people are very curious about the Soviet military machine."

Friendship Roads is one of several new travel agencies trying to wrest business away from the state-owned travel giant Intourist, which still controls most of the dwindling foreign tourist pie in Russia.

In 1990, the Soviet Union's last full year, over 5 million Western tourists came through Moscow. This year fewer than two million visitors of all categories are expected.

"You have to give people excitement, something new and fresh," says Mr Chistakhodov. "No one wants to go in a herd to the same old dreary museums anymore."

It's not all that expensive, considering you can't get anything like this at EuroDisney. For just $2,750 (US) you can actually fly a 1960s vintage MiG-21 supersonic fighter, in the company of a trained test pilot.

Half an hour in a state-of-the-art MiG-29, Russia's current front line fighter, will cost $6,000. The planes fly from Zhukovsky and Lukovitsky military test fields, near Moscow.

"Mostly professional pilots come over here to try this," says Mr Chistakhodov. "But anyone is welcome."

If you like things that explode, $150 will buy a day at a Russian army live firing range, where tourists can fire military revolvers, Kalashnikov sub machine guns and other weapons.

For a few bucks more, you can ride with the crew of a T-80 tank, fire a "Flame" grenade launcher or blast holes in the sky with an AAG-23 anti-aircraft cannon. Another $25, and you can take home a full Russian uniform, as a souvenir.

"Everything is available on a commercial basis these days," says Mr Chistakhodov. "The Russian army needs money, people want a good look at the force that scared them to death for four decades. We can do a deal."

Other agencies are trying to put the bang back into travel to Russia with hunting and fishing treks through the vast and untouched northern wilderness. Experts say that mountain climbing in the Caucasus, Europe's highest range, will be popular once the small matter of the war in Chechnya is settled.

"We have thrills for every taste," says Oleg Bondarenko, director of Siberian Adventures, a new agency that arranges custom tours. "Russia is the largest country in the world, but these days it has the smallest number of tourists. Surely that can't last?"

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