When a University of Maryland delegation reached Vladivostok airport recently, it was met by a band of Gypsies.
The delegation's Aeroflot flight had arrived early and the Soviet hosts had not yet turned up. In their place were perhaps 75 Gypsies who had been waiting on the airport's second-floor mezzanine, apparently for several days. They had strung makeshift tents from old sheets and blankets, and some sat on the floor in front of these temporary homes drinking tea and smoking. The Soviet hosts hustled their American colleagues out of the airport in a hurry, explaining later in the taxis that they feared something might be stolen.
Vladivostok, one soon learns, is a place devoid of any softening of the current Soviet reality for visitors. That should not really be .. surprising. The city has been closed to outsiders, both Soviet and foreign, for generations. Only with the coming of perestroika has it begun to open up to foreign trade, culture and in recent months, tourism.
Citizens trace the opening of the city to a 1986 speech given there by Mikhail Gorbachev in which he asked Vladivostok to join the dynamic forces shaping the Pacific Rim. It took Gorbachev's full authority to begin to change the mind of this navy town, home of the Soviet Far East Fleet, and it took Boris Yeltsin's charisma to open the cityfully following his August 1990 visit. For generations the Soviet Navy had called the shots in the city known as "Fortress Vladivostok" in Stalin's day, and the navy looked askance at visitors.
Recently, Soviet tourists have flocked to Vladivostok, and there are plans to receive foreign visitors who are expected to arrive in ever-larger numbers in this year and beyond.
The University of Maryland University College sent 40 U.S. students and faculty from its military-based programs on a first-ever study tour to Vladivostok in July 1990. In early September two U.S. Navy ships visited the city in an equally unprecedented port call. And as of Jan. 1, 1991, visas were routinely granted for foreign tourists to visit Vladivostok.
The city is working hard to prepare for the expected crush of foreign guests, but as yet few projects are completed. Its airport is being renovated; its old ferry port is being rebuilt by an Italian crew. The city's two barely adequate hotels are undergoing renovation and a new Intourist hotel is going up with Indian engineering help. Guides are frantically learning English, but now they usually give their spiels in Russian and call on Far Eastern State University students to translate these into English or Japanese.
Typical of the early stages of tourism, the guides are not entirely sure what foreigners might want to see or hear. When American visitors in March showed an interest in fishermen drilling through harbor ice and other locals hacking through the same ice to swim in the frigid sea, the guides were nonplused.
The confusion became even more pronounced when the American group insisted on stopping the conventional tour to visit Vladivostok's blue-green Victorian birthday cake of a railway station. To outsiders, this unusual building, with its Orthodox Church interior, now-passe socialist realism murals and gingerbread-house decorations, represents much of the romance of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
To the guides, however, it seemed an embarrassment because, as one said, "That station is old and ugly." Another small embarrassment for them, though more of an oddity for the visitors, came from the lips of a counterspy, carefully disguised as a silent babushka selling sausages. That is, until she caught sight of the visitors photographing the elaborately decorated entrance to the restrooms -- at which moment she began to point and shout, "Spion!" at the top of her voice. The foreign spies were encouraged to leave the station, with many apologies from the guides.
The late 19th century core of the city, undamaged by war, will be a considerable attraction to most visitors, but older buildings received only perfunctory attention from guides. Their focus was more on post-1917 monuments and structures.
The raw newness of tourism in Vladivostok is reflected in three tourist experiences. First, recent visitors found no postcards for sale at the usual places, such as hotels, restaurants and museums. After much searching, one bookstore turned up that carried postcards of Lenin in various heroic poses.
Second, these visitors never saw a single word in a foreign language during the five days of their stay.Third, they did not find restaurants serving food even to the most modest international standards. At least two places tried hard, though. A show-piece North Korean restaurant, the Moranban, had no rice, kimchi and beer, but the food was well-prepared. Someone had arranged for a vast oversupply of cucumbers, and recent visitors had them each day at all three meals wherever they ate.