Russia may rank among the top 15 countries by the number of World Heritage natural and cultural sites but tourism accounts for just three percent of the gross domestic product.
The number of tourists coming to Russia fell last year by seven percent to 2.1 million, while the number of Russians visiting foreign countries jumped by 32 percent to 12.6 million, said Vladimir Kantorovich, first vice president of the Association of Tour Operators.
Officials and tourists alike mention many problems – difficulties with getting a Russian visa, lack of investment, poor infrastructure, crime and the language barrier.
“I decided to come to Russia because I love the culture, the history, and I was curious to meet Russians. I wanted to form my own ideas about the country, different from the western view,” said Laura, a student from France.
“It was surprising to see that Russians don’t speak English and in Moscow, I think they are sick of tourists and just don’t make any effort. So to find your way, to eat in a restaurant, was quite a challenge,” she said.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Russia ranks fourth in the world by the number of World Heritage natural sites and 13th by the number of cultural sites. However, it ranks a paltry 59th among 139 countries by the competitiveness of its tourism business.
Among the factors which give Russia a poor score, the WEF mentions poor land transport, safety and security issues such as high level of crime, lack of trust in police to provide protection and deaths caused in road accidents.
The WEF says tourism is the “122nd most important” issue for the government.
Russia ranks 91st in spending on tourism, falling way behind Gambia, Cambodia, Paraguay and Tunisia which are on top of the list.
Russia spends about 0.6 euro to attract one tourist, while the world’s average stands at six euros, said Yury Bazrykin, vice president of the Russian Union of Travel Industry.
St. Petersburg, Moscow and the cities that surround the capital receive most foreign tourists.
Other sites, such as Baikal lake, the world’s deepest lake and largest body of fresh water, the Kamchatka peninsula with its volcanoes and unique flora and fauna, attract only 1-2 percent of tourists due to poor infrastructure.
“Nobody invents new tourist routes, although a huge area, some 80 percent of Russia, was opened up after the collapse of the USSR,” Kantorovich said.
Russia is also very expensive.”I was really surprised to see that Moscow is even more expensive than Paris, but this is, maybe, because I didn’t know the cheap places,” Laura said.
Moscow remains one of the most expensive cities for accommodation not only in Europe but also in the world.
The annual average room rate in Moscow hotels is approximately $237, while in Paris it is about $230, in London $216, in Berlin $189 and in Prague $141, said the Knight Frank real estate company in a study.
Foreigners also often have to pay more than Russians for entertainment. The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, for instance, charges 180 rubles for an adult ticket from Russians and twice as much from foreigners, despite a law passed in the 1990s banning differential pricing for foreigners.