The Russian tourist industry is in for a change – this year its budget allocates 2.5 billion roubles to develop tourism in six regions. More than 300 billion rubles will be spent on tourist facilities in the next seven years. Representatives of the tourist industry warn that transportation problems and lack of quality service may reduce to zero this serious government measure.

Improving the image

Today Russia is an outsider in government investment in the tourist industry. According to the rating of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Russia is only 91st in expenses on tourism. However, changes for the better are ahead. Alexander Radkov, head of the Russian Federal Tourism Agency, told journalists on July 5 that the government is going to review in the near future a federal targeted program for developing tourism for Russian citizens and foreigners for 2011-1018.

Radkov explained that the program will cost more than 300 billion rubles, including 96 billion from the federal budget and over 200 billion from the regions and private investors.

Vice President of the Russian Union of Tourist Industry Yury Barzykin said on this score: “This is the first government program of this kind. Its main goal is to produce and promote a competitive tourist product, develop tourist infrastructure facilities and create additional jobs.”

Quoting the Central Bank, Barzykin said last year Russians who went abroad for different purposes (tourism, business, studies, etc) took out about $26.5 billion, whereas foreigners brought into Russia only $8.9 billion. The gap is huge – about $17 billion and it grows with every year, Barzykin said.

According to the Ministry of Sports and Tourism, the number of Russians who went abroad for vacation last year increased by 32% compared to 2009, having exceeded 12 million people. This compares with a mere 2.4 million foreigners that came for vacation to Russia.

The government hopes to reverse this trend. “The program should facilitate the growth of the tourist flow, increase the number of paid tourist services and develop a positive image of the Russian regions,” Barzykin said.

Tourist attractions

Russia does have good opportunities for attracting tourists. WEF experts rate Russia the fifth in the world in natural tourist resources and ninth in cultural heritage objects.

Barzykin said the first 2.5 billion rubles under the new program will be allocated this year to create seven priority tourist hubs in six regions – the Ivanovo, Pskov, Ryazan, Rostov and Yaroslavl regions, and the Altai Territory.

Radkov specified the program’s objectives: “Under the program the funds will be spent on the construction of roads, communications, and water supply and electricity systems. Investors should come when this is done and build tourist infrastructure facilities.”

We must consider our climate and geography – it is more difficult for Russia to develop profitable tourist business than for the countries where the sun shines the whole year round. Thus, it makes no sense to build beach hotels in Russia with the same level of service as in warm countries. “We must realize that we have a short summer. Return on investment in offshore hotels will take more time and its working lifespan will be shorter than in Egypt,” Radkov said.

He noted that to some extent this explains why Russian offshore hotels charge more. The other reason is lack of competition. He hopes investors will not be afraid to put their money into quality infrastructure facilities that will promote competition.

“Given a professional approach, there are virtually no regions without prospects for tourism in Russia,” Barzykin believes. In his opinion, a comprehensive approach will help cover seasonal losses.

“Many speak about the tourist potential of the North Caucasus but we should not limit ourselves to alpine skiing or snowboards. Tourists should have an opportunity to swim, go into the mountains and receive medical treatment,” Barzykin said.

Transport is a real headache

Quality tourist facilities with economy class hotels and entertainment and health-building centers will not resolve all the problems. Prices on transportation, especially on air tickets, are a serious obstacle to domestic tourism.

According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), Russia could potentially receive up to 40 million foreign tourists per year. “But a miracle won’t happen. We must be realistic. We’ll have to work a lot to increase the tourist flow,” he said.

The construction of facilities is not the only solution. Dean of the tourist business technology department of Russian New University Natalya Morozova said: “The tourist flow will grow with good transportation conditions. Today a week of all-inclusive vacation in Turkey may cost less than a one-way domestic air ticket.”

“Up to 40% of the tourist product’s cost is spent on transportation,” Barzykin confirms. For the time being there are no signs that this problem will be resolved soon. “The government must support low-cost air lines and expand discount flights,” he said.

The personnel training for the tourist industry leaves much to be desired as well. “Specialists are trained in this country but their education is mostly theoretical and is not in demand in the tourist business,” Radkov said. He noted there is a shortage of elementary qualified personnel, for instance, chambermaids and barmen.

Morozova believes students do not always have opportunities for practical training. Employers must be also interested in the training of skilled personnel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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