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Russia is considered by the World Tourism Organization a country with great potential for tourism development.
But figures cited by tourism experts showed that 70 percent to 80 percent of the 3.5 million foreign tourists that came to the county last year rarely ventured farther than Moscow, St. Petersburg and perhaps the Golden Ring.
Most foreigners don't know what they are missing, said Sergei Shpilko, president of the Russian Association of Travel Agents, or RATA. They don't realize they could be taking a cruise along thewaters of the Volga, bathing in hot springs surrounded by volcanoes in Kamchatka or taking a boat over the crystal-clear waters of Lake Baikal.
But this goes for quite a few Russians too, he added. For 70 years, access to a large part of the country was restricted for many Russians; and then with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of these local tourists headed off abroad.
An alternative Seven Wonders of the World could easily be unearthed on Russia's territory, if only tourists and governments were willing to dig them out, experts said.
Most agree it is difficult to tie Russia down to only seven wonders -- yet the country still has to catch on as an important destination internationally.
Russia is probably best known for its well-traipsed route of St. Petersburg and Moscow -- the introduction points for the average tourist and about as far as many are likely to venture.
Considered the heart of Russia, Moscow is described by travel operators as a place where ancient Russia meets the Soviet Union and capitalism -- illustrated by the golden onion domes of the Kremlin's Orthodox churches, which look out past Lenin's mausoleum and over the massive GUM shopping complex.
St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is considered to be a more European capital. The creation of Peter the Great, it is best know for its 18th- and 19th-century palaces; the Peter and Paul fortress, a former prison; the Hermitage Museum; and the White Nights.
Often favored over Moscow by tourists, St. Petersburg is one of the few cities that has allocated money from its budget -- around 14 million rubles ($491,000) -- to support the development of tourism.
Together with the regional authorities, RATA has produced a program it hopes to realize for the 300-year anniversary of the city in 2003 that includes the construction of a tourist-information office -- a feature lacking in most Russian cities and regions.
"Most people only come [to St. Petersburg] once," said Sergei Korneyev, president of the city's RATA branch. "They do the standard program; they see the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul fortress and the opening of the bridges, and they think it is all that is interesting about St. Petersburg."
In a bid to change that view, the city hopes to offer theater premieres and jazz and cultural festivals in its impressive courtyards and to capitalize on its history as the last seat of the imperial family.
Korneyev said St. Petersburg last year attracted around 2 million Russian and foreign tourists, compared to 1.8 million the year before. Many tourists come from Scandinavian countries for long weekends, and most cultural tourists tend to be middle-aged Europeans.
2. The Golden Ring
The Golden Ring is a group of towns and cities -- including Suzdal, Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Kostroma and others -- that once played an important politcal, spiritual and cultural role in ancient Rus. They offer a host of restored and abandoned churches, monasteries and fortresses, rich museums and preserved wooden villages.
Whereas in the mid-1980s, the circuit would draw 2 million to 3 million foreign tourists a year, by 1999 this figure had dropped to around 200,000, said Irina Solyankina, head of domestic tourism at Moscow-based travel company Vand International.
Now companies are promoting their cruises and tours more to Russian tourists in a bid to attract them to the region, and are offering different itineraries such as tours focusing on the ring's industrial heritage. There is also increased demand for tours for Russian schoolchildren, Solyankina said.
Set on the Black Sea coast against the backdrop of the snow-capped Caucasus mountains, the beach resort town Sochi was for a long time the place to spend a vacation, with its subtropical climate, warm seas, arboretum and gardens.
The breakup of the Soviet Union saw many Russians jetting off abroad, and Sochi's yearly tourist intake fell. Last year, however, as a result of the 1998 financial meltdown, Russians had less cash for trips abroad and many returned to resorts they knew well, resulting in a good tourist season for Sochi.
Most tourists visit Sochi to relax on the beaches, swim in the sea and partake of its favorable climate; but its mineral spas and sanatoriums make it an ideal health resort. Its healing waters attract people seeking to cure rheumatism and recover from illnesses.
Anapa, also on Russia's Black Sea coast, has the reputation of being the best curative spa town for children.
Yevgeny Ivannikov of the Sochi city administration tourism committee said the town has great potential, but it still lacks direct flights to places in Europe and America.
He said the city would benefit greatly by improving its infrastructure base, and could draw tourists to the area year round by developing better ski-resort facilities at nearby Krasnaya Polyana, a 600-meter-high settlement set in the mountains and alpine glades.
For those seeking a natural high, Russia's best attractions may be the Altai and Caucasus mountains.
Untouched, unharmed and largely undiscovered by Western tourists, the so-called golden mountains of Russia's Altai republic are noted for being among the most beautiful and primordial parts of Siberia.
The Altai mountain chain is set in a rich and diverse landscape of steppe, taiga and semi-desert, and stretches about 2,000 kilometers from Mongolia's Gobi Desert to the West Siberian Plain, through Chinese, Mongolian, Russian and Kazak territory.
A report called Tourism Development in the Altai Republic, prepared as part of United Nations Development Program research into the state of the travel industry, notes the primordial scenery, the exceptionally clear water of Lake Teletskoye and the 200,000 rivers and lakes in the region. Mountainous and inhabited by about 200,000 people, Altai is known for its mysterious rock drawings, tombs beneath mounds and ancient archaeological treasures.
In 1999, the Altai republic received about 200,000 tourists, but the flow of visitors was unorganized and could pose an environmental danger to the area, according to the UNDP report, which was released at a Moscow conference on tourism development in March.
Altai has great opportunities to develop ecological and cultural tourism, the report notes, and it has resorts for tourists, but these are five hours away from the international airport at Barnaul and are not connected to one another. Access to some areas is difficult and sometimes only possible by helicopter, horseback or foot.
Areas of the Caucasus mountains, which rise dramatically above the Black Sea coast and run down to the Caspian Sea, are also noted by groups such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for their plant diversity, subalpine pastures grazed by wild animals and lack of human disturbance.
Here, one can go skiing, scale Europe's highest peak -- the 5,642-meter Mount Elbrus -- and relax at the spas of Mineralniye Vody.
Home to a range of cultures, peoples and languages, the Caucasus also stretch into the more troubled regions of Dagestan and Chechnya, so travel is unsafe in some areas.
Kamchatka, once closed to foreigners, in 1998 had over 4,000 travelers visit its hot springs and view its wildlife and spectacular sunsets.
5. Far East
Getting out of the airplane at Kamchatka, one is surrounded on three sides by volcanoes in a land of the most amazing virgin nature, RATA's Shpilko said.
Kamchatka, a more than 1,000-kilometer-long peninsula dividing the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean, is said to be one of the least explored regions on Earth.
The most amazing attraction, Shpilko said, is the Valley of the Geysers in Kronotsky National Park, which was only discovered in the 1940s. Its 180 or more volcanoes, thermal activity, hot springs, heated rivers and geysers should be enough to attract any tourist in their right mind. Inhabited by less than one person per square kilometer, the peninsula boasts at least 14,000 rivers, 10,000 lakes, thousands of brown bears and sable, and hundreds of bird and plant species indigenous to the area.
Once closed to foreigners, the region last year attracted 4,000 visitors, said Viktor Shuslin, Kamchatka's Vladivostok Air representative. Many people flew over from America and Japan for the chance to hunt and fish, said Frederic Claus, a program officer with the UNDP, but this type of tourism could pose a threat to the natural environment. There is great potential for cultural and ecological tourism on Kamchatka, he added, but there are also problems.
"It is a beautiful wilderness, but there are no roads and the only means of transport is helicopter. But now all helicopters are in the hands of one company, so the prices are non-competitive."
Lying on the very edge of Russia, Vladivostok is known as one the last Russian stops on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Founded as a military outpost in 1860, Vladivostok soon grew in importance as an international trading port.
The city, which is home to the Russian Pacific Fleet, was closed to foreigners for more than 30 years due to its increasing military role.
Now Vladivostok is considered to be an attractive, lively city centered around hills overlooking the Golden Horn Bay.
6. Lakes and Rivers
A holiday pursuit popular among Russians but rarely tried by foreigners is to take the pulse of the country by plying its main artery, the Volga.
The 3,700-kilometer-long river winds its way past republics and cities with varied environments, religions and economies, but all of which hold the Volga as something central to their cultural heritage.
Cruises can take the would-be sailors from Moscow to the Golden Ring town of Yaroslavl, past former trading center Nizhny Novgorod, through virgin forests to the Moslem Tartarstan Republic and down to the Astrakhan delta.
But among the best waters to ply are the crystal-clear depths of the pearl of Siberia -- Lake Baikal -- one of the genuine Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
An impressive spectacle near the border of Russia and Mongolia, Lake Baikal is 636 kilometers long and 80 kilometers wide -- and is the world's deepest lake.
Surrounded by forests and mountain peaks, the waters are transparent to a depth of 40 meters in the summer, and freeze over so thick in the winter that the Trans-Siberian Railroad once ran over its surface.
The lake has more than 2,000 recorded plant and animal species -- bears, elk, lynx, sables, freshwater seal, trout, salmon and sturgeon. It is fed by 336 rivers, with only one river feeding out.
However, its ecological system is threatened by overfishing and pollution from the Senga River and the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill.
The nearby city of Irkutsk, an old merchant town on the tea-trading road between Russia and China that developed into a scientific and industrial center during Soviet times, provides easy access to Lake Baikal.
But the eastern shore of Baikal in Buryatia is less explored, and contains some amazing flora and fauna, national parks and a most picturesque landscape. A spokesman for RATA in the Buryatia region said that last year the region received 35,000 tourists, of which 24,000 were Russian tourists and 11,000 were foreign, mainly from Asian countries such as Japan and China. However, it has a less-developed infrastructure, with fewer roads, restaurants and places to stay, and no international airport. The best way to arrive is perhaps by our seventh wonder, one of the world's great train journeys.
7. Trans-Siberian Railroad
Siberia tends to conjure up images of frozen wastelands and political prisoners exiled to labor camps, but the region has many natural, historical and cultural wonders waiting to be explored.
One of the most famous ways to explore Siberia's vast expanse -- and probably the dream of many a foreigner -- is the mythical Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is now the longest continuous rail line on earth. Lake Baikal, Ulan Ude in Buryatia and Vladivostok, Far East, are all along the journey. The mammoth trip over seven days and across eight time zones can transport a traveler from Moscow to Irkutsk and then Vladivostok. Other popular options are the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian lines, which take travelers to Ulan Bator and Beijing.
-- Denise Albrighton
The Moscow Times Business Review