From Russia's rarely seen 'Yellowstone,' a plea for tourists

As Russia invests $3 billion to attract visitors, it could open a nature preserve with the largest concentration of active volcanoes and geysers in Eurasia to tourism.

Casting an envious eye toward Yellowstone National Park, Russia may finally be ready to let the world know it has big geysers, too.

The remote Valley of the Geysers has been seen only by a handful of people since it was discovered in 1941. It was completely closed to visitors under Soviet law, which preserved many of the most naturally impressive sites for scientific research. Since 1991, the four-mile-long valley that contains 90 active geysers and numerous mineral hot springs, opened only for guided tours for a limited few.

But as Russia tries to undo its reputation as the most unwelcoming tourist destination in Europe, Moscow is investing $3 billion to make the country more enticing to visitors and has set aside $82 million for its 200 nature preserves, some of which are unique natural wonders that have never been open to even the Russian public, much less foreign tourists.

And while Russia appears to be putting out a welcome mat, money looks like the primary motivator. "If we invest in national parks and nature reserves, we'll see this money return to the budget," Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev told journalists last week, noting that national parks in the US bring in around $14.5 billion each year.

Hoping to take advantage of this new mood, officials at the Kronotsky State Natural Biosphere Reserve in the remote Pacific territory of Kamchatka are petitioning Moscow to change its status to a "national park" so that it can attract more tourists. This week, it posted a virtual tour of the Valley of the Geysers, the largest concentration of active volcanoes and geysers in Eurasia.

"There are enormous possibilities for developing ecological tourism here," says Arkady Tishkov, deputy director of the official Institute of Geography in Moscow. "Over the past couple decades Kamchatka has been depopulated, because people are leaving. They might have stayed if there were properly organized tourism." [Editor's note: The original version misstated Arkady Tishkov's title.]

But he adds that while the Valley of the Geysers could be opened to greater numbers of guided tourists, other parts of the park, which include Eurasia's highest active volcano and the natural habitat of the world's largest bears, Kamchatka brown bears, should remain off limits.

"Unrestricted access is the biggest threat [to the delicate ecology]," he says. "The geyser valley could host more visitors, if they are properly organized, but other parts of the preserve should be for scientists only."

The geyser valley is one of 10 restricted nature zones in Russia – which have been identified as UNESCO World Heritage sites – that the Russian government is thinking of developing for tourist potential.

The list includes Siberia's Lake Baikal, which contains a stunning 20 percent of the world's fresh water; Europe's last alpine wilderness in the western Caucasus mountains; and Europe's largest tract of ancient virgin forest in northern Russia's Komi Republic.

"There are amazing places in Russia that are virtually untouched by human activities," says Andrei Petrov, head of the World Heritage project at Greenpeace-Russia. "It's very good if they are planning to make them more open, so that people can see them. But it's worrisome too. These sites are unique and irreplaceable, it's very important to preserve them for future generations."

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