With bomb explosions, mafia killings , and other mayhem, Russia is not exactly an alluring travel destination.
But Russia's new independent travel agents are out to change that.
"Serious travel agencies have only appeared in Russia in the past five years, and already the competition is getting fierce," says Svetlana Zamekhovskaya of the independent First Travel Group. "People are realizing that it can be a profitable business if you develop routes, build infrastructure, and find ways to advertise."
The World Tourism Organization predicted last month that Russia could be among the Top 10 global tourist destinations by 2020, if it can solve some of its basic problems.
A trip to the enigmatic Soviet Union used to be the ultimate Cold War thrill. But the number of visitors is down from a peak of 5 million in 1990, to fewer than 2 million annually, and most of those never venture beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"The Communists used to spend a lot of resources putting out a good image of this country, but nowadays nothing is being done to counter all the negative propaganda about us," says Sergei Shengen of Intourist, the state-owned Soviet-era giant that continues to handle more than half of all foreign tourism.
Last year 66,000 visitors from the US visited Russia, making the US second among Western nations to Germany, which sent 107,000 tourists in 1999. "These are tiny numbers. Any small town in Western Europe receives more guests than that," says Alexander Chistakhodov, director of the Friendship Roads agency.
Independent tour operators say one obstacle to modern tourism is Intourist itself, which continues to run lock-step herd tours to a few showcase sites.
"Intourist owns most of the tourist infrastructure that was ever built in this country, and keeps it under tight control," says Oleg Bondarenko, co-director of Siberian Adventures." But what many foreign tourists want is individual, customized travel."
Mr. Chistakhodov also notes that outside Moscow and St. Petersburg there are few modern hotels, restaurants, and other conveniences. Transportation is awful. The Russian government subjects visitors to strict visa requirements, humiliating customs checks, and other bureaucratic hurdles incompatible with modern notions of travel. And private travel agencies are starved for investment, strangled by high taxes, and don't know how to promote their services in the sophisticated West. Friendship Roads is one of the few agencies with a Web site.
Zamekhovksaya lists the additional problem that in many areas security can't be guaranteed.
Last month the State Department issued an advisory cautioning Americans against travel to Russia, citing the arrest and imprisonment in Moscow of US businessman Edmond Pope on spying charges.
Despite the obstacles, private operators say that even though numbers of visitors have fallen dramatically from previous highs, foreign tourism is, according to tentative estimates, up 20 percent this year over last year.
In July, Mr. Bondarenko led nine Americans on a bicycle tour of the Golden Ring, an arc of ancient, fortified monastery towns near Moscow and in August took two Westerners to ski on Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak.
Other small tour agencies offer camping and fishing treks in Russia's vast northern forests, lazy boat cruises down the Volga River, and climbing expeditions to the Altai Mountains. An increasingly popular destination for the intrepid few is Lake Baikal, a pristine seven-mile-deep lake in Siberia that is home to dozens of unique animal species.
For those who still want cold war kicks, Friendship Roads will fulfill once-forbidden fantasies. For $2,750 you can fly - under supervision of a military test pilot - a supersonic MiG-21 fighter of 1960s vintage. For just $150, you can spend a day at a Russian Army firing range, ride in a T-80 tank, and shoot a Kalashnikov rifle, a grenade-launcher, or an anti-aircraft cannon.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society