Russian holiday: just for the hardy

Only three million tourists visited the country last year.

At first glance, the view from Sochi's Black Sea shore looks almost perfect: sparkling blue sea, a broad band of beach backed by palm trees and green hills, a range of snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Then a freight train rumbles down the beachfront within a few feet of sunbathers - and the idyll shatters.

The legacy of hamhanded Soviet planners is only one of many obstacles facing tour operators as they try to entice Western travelers to post-Soviet Russia.

Though it is the world's largest country, with natural wonders, unique architecture, and famous art museums, Russia places almost last among European lands as a tourist destination.

The Russian Tourism Union, an association of 1,000 private companies, recently cited red tape, high prices, poor infrastructure and service, and security fears as key reasons foreign tourism fell by 25 percent this year.

Even many Russians are opting for cheaper and better vacation packages offered in southern Europe and Asia, the group said.

"Whenever I talk to Americans about Russia they inevitably say, 'Why on earth would you go there?' " says Jeff Wilgos, a Bostonian who's building a holiday village in the central town of Suzdal, the third main tourist destination after Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In Soviet times, a trip behind the Iron Curtain was a cold war thrill, and a bit of deprivation was regarded as part of the experience. Nearly 7 million Westerners trooped to the USSR in 1991, most with the state firm Intourist.

Last year, barely 3 million foreign tourists (including 182,000 Americans) came to Russia, few venturing beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. The vast majority still travel with package tours offered by Intourist, now a private firm, and other operators who usher travelers through hurdles - at a steep price.

"People pay almost twice as much to visit Russia as it costs to vacation in other European countries,"says Sergei Synitsyn, adviser to the chief of Russia's official tourist agency Rosturist. "This is mostly due to the cost of accommodation. We don't yet have a range of affordable hotels."

Russian tourists took $20 billion abroad last year but spent just $1 billion traveling at home. Foreigners spent about $2 billion, according to Rosturist.

For individuals, planning a Russia trip can be daunting. Internet-based companies have sprung up to help with visas. But official help is almost nonexistent. "We hope for real funding in future but right now, basically, we don't have a penny to provide information to would-be visitors," says Mr. Synitsyn.

Getting around can be a frustration for non-Russian speakers, experts say. Bureaucratic hurdles are, at best, baffling. "You've got to register your visa [with local police] in each city you visit, which is sometimes easier said than done,"says Lisa Dickey, an American writer who's reprising a trip she made across Russia a decade ago. "Buying train tickets, booking hotel rooms, and the like - is somewhat easier than it was 10 years ago, though anyone expecting a Western level of 'customer service' will be in for a rude shock," she says.

Some experts say Russia's image as crimeridden is a bum rap. But others disagree. "Russia is largely a police state, and there are lots of opportunities to run into troubles with the law,"says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "There is corruption among the police, who might use any pretext to make your life hard. A foreigner who comes here on a tourist visa, with no large organization to protect him, presents a tempting target to police, criminals, and venal service personnel."

But most agree that Russia still has much to offer. "This is a unique country, which most of the world knows nothing about,"says Kira Nekrasova, director of Intourist's US department.

Sochi, where Czarist and Communist elites vacationed, is a graceful city of 400,000 whose palm-fringed seaside is lined with Soviet-era sanitoriums. President Vladimir Putin summers here and often skis at the nearby resort of Krasnaya Polyana. Many ordinary Russians still flock here as well. But adjacent areas of the north Caucasus, once famous for mountain vistas and mineral-water spas, are mostly off-limits due to the war in Chechnya.

Boat cruises down the 2,300-mile Volga River remain popular, though the Tourist Union complains that the cruise fleet is a "floating museum." The famous Trans-Siberian Express also needs investment, experts say, though it is booked for two years ahead.

Some see a future in "extreme tourism," such as breaking the sound barrier in a MiG-25 fighter plane or flying to the North Pole by helicopter. "For regular tourists ... Russia is probably not the place to go,"says Mr. Kremeniuk. "But for those who like a risk, it's got real potential, so why not develop this?"

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