Tourists Rocking the Boats

Tourists Rocking the Boats

Published: June 11, 2013 (Issue # 1763)

Ekaterina Kuzmina / Vedomosti

Tourists are taking advantage of cheap commuter boat prices as a daily sightseeing option, leaving local commuters stranded.

Commuter boats, the city’s most enjoyable mode of transportation and one that competes successfully with tourist boat trips in the summer, have found themselves under the threat of extinction. While St. Petersburg is a city of magnificent waterways that is often compared to Venice, Stockholm, Amsterdam and other watery capitals, it can only envy the well-developed water transport systems of these other cities. And, much to the frustration of locals and tourists alike, making the most of the city’s waterways has consistently failed to develop as a solid business proposition with a reliable infrastructure.

Currently, the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly is discussing the fate of commuter boats and the forecast looks gloomy. Economists say that although the boats are always full, they are draining the city coffers through their lack of profitability. They argue that because the trips are much cheaper than other boat trips and there is no time limit, travelers take advantage of the situation. Locals also complain that using the boats to get to work is often impossible because savvy tourists are using the boats as a cheaper sightseeing option.

A ticket normally costs 100 rubles ($3.10) per journey for an adult and 50 rubles ($1.55) for a child. These prices are a fraction of the cost of hiring a private boat, which charge 1600 to 3200 rubles ($50 to $100) per hour. River cruises are also more expensive than commuter boats, charging 150 to 350 rubles ($4.65 to $10.86), and with departures far less regular and the duration of the journey strictly limited.

The low cost of commuter boats is achieved because the project is partially sponsored by City Hall. It originally targeted locals and was aimed at relieving congestion on St. Petersburg’s busy roads.

Olga Galkina, a liberal lawmaker with the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, is convinced that although the commuter boats have proved inefficient, they still have the potential to become a new mode of transportation in the city.

“To make that happen, a drastically different approach to the way the routes and pricing policy are structured must be adopted,” Galkina said.

Although commuter boats may seem like an obvious mode of transportation in cities like St. Petersburg, it has taken a long time for them to come to the banks of local rivers and canals. Venice has been operating its vaporetti since 1881. St. Petersburg, by comparison, made its first attempt to introduce such boats in 2004.

Commuter boats began operating on a regular basis in 2010, serving four routes. This year, local authorities have decided to sponsor only a single route: The Primorsky line that connects Staraya Derevnya metro station and the Arsenalnaya embankment.

“We have reviewed the financial results for 2012 and can clearly see that we have a small number of passengers, which suggests that the project does not make sense,” said Stanislav Popov, head of City Hall’s Transport Committee.

At the same time, the commuter boats are always full. “Because some of the routes offered panoramic views of the city, the boats ended up being occupied by tourists for hours. It was indeed a good deal at the price of 100 rubles, but unfair on those locals who only needed to travel a couple of stops to get from location to location,” Galkina said.

“The waterways need development, and there is also a serious need for commuter boats as a means of transportation. One good solution would be to reduce the number of stops in the more picturesque areas so that the commuter boats could really take people from the more distant areas to the center — full stop,” Galkina said.

The lawmakers have also suggested increasing the seating capacities of the boats and a more varied pricing policy that would take into account either the time spent on the commuter boats or the distance traveled.

“As it stands now, City Hall is in danger of becoming a laughing stock; City-sponsored commuter boats are attracting clients away from commercial companies that manage tour boats, while the boats needed for public transport do not function as they should,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a lawmaker with the democratic Yabloko party.

“We will have to make some strategic decisions, ranging from keeping the commuter boats operating to creating a new system of routes and a different pricing policy,” Popov said. “One idea is to create a route that would start at the sea terminal on Vasilievsky Island and finish near the Finland Train Station or Palace Square.”

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