Russia hopes to join ranks of top tourist destinations

Despite being home to some of the world's great attractions - from Red Square and the Kremlin in Moscow to the famed Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg - Russia has struggled to attract tourists.

With some of the most expensive hotels in the world, inadequate tourism infrastructure, a reputation for surly service and bureaucratic headaches for visitors, Russia is hardly an easy destination for travellers.

Now the Russian government is hoping to change all that and is planning to launch an ambitious programme to make the country a tourist paradise by 2016 and thrust it into the ranks of major tourism destinations.

"We are going to do everything possible so that a foreign visitor feels comfortable in Russia," the deputy minister for tourism and sport, Nadezhda Nazina, told AFP.

The Russian government will soon be considering a 352-billion-ruble (11.7-billion-dollar, 8.5-billion-euro) plan to improve infrastructure, train specialists and launch a major advertising campaign, she said.

If the plan is successful "in five years up to 40 million foreign tourists could visit Russia every year," Nazina said.

Russia last year attracted only 2.3 million foreign visitors, according to the federal tourism agency, placing it far below the top destinations for international tourists.

The top two destinations, France and the United States, attracted 74 million and 55 million visitors respectively in 2009, according to the World Tourism Organisation.

To reach its target, Russia would need to attract about as many tourists every year as Italy, which last year hosted 43 million foreign visitors.

Industry experts in Russia said they would love to see the plan succeed but were highly sceptical.

The figure of 40 million tourists "is a prediction that is in the realm of science fiction," said Maya Lomidze, the executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia.

"Too many conditions would have to be met for this plan to be realised. The main necessity is that we have hotels at affordable prices. Russia is a very expensive country," she said.

According to a recent study by travel consultancy the Hogg Robinson Group, the average price of a hotel room in Moscow is 402 dollars (288 euros), the most expensive in the world. In Paris the average price was 318 dollars (227 euros) and in New York 297 dollars (213 euros).

"In Moscow there are almost no economy-class hotels or they are very bad. The prices are exorbitant," said Irina Tyurina, the spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Industry Union.

She said Moscow and Russia's Tsarist-era capital Saint Petersburg, famed for their luxury hotels, continue to host most visitors to Russia, accounting for 95-98 percent of foreign guests.

The next most-popular destinations are the so-called Golden Ring of ancient cities near Moscow including Vladimir and Rostov, the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia's Far East and the Lake Baikal region in Siberia.

Industry experts said Russia will also have to overcome the bureaucratic red-tape that is the bane of visits to the country.

Foreign visitors are not only required to indicate the cities they plan to visit when applying for a Russian visa, they are also required to register with local migration authorities every time they visit a new city, a process Tyurina described as "humiliating."

Russia is also country "that has not yet adapted to the needs of foreign tourists," Lomidze said. For example, there are no signs in English in the Moscow Metro except for small plans posted in the underground transportation network.

"The conditions are such that a foreigner who does not speak Russian cannot get around on their own," she said.

Despite their scepticism, tour organisers nonetheless hope the government plan will succeed.

"If the government's plan is realised, tour operators will be thrilled ... There are a lot of things to see in Russia," Lomidze said.

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