Tourists are semi-welcome


St. Petersburg: The Russian city is rich in history and culture, but dirty and rundown. Foreigners pay more for everything than visiting Russians.

July 09, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG - During the "White Nights" summer solstice celebrations in this fairy tale city, with its stone-lined canals and pastel palaces, crowds stream along Nevsky Prospekt as twilight lingers after midnight.

Home to the world famous Mariinsky Theater and the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg is one of the world's cultural capitals. The strolling sightseers, like those in Paris or London, might be tourists from around the world eagerly spending money in restaurants and concert halls.

But almost all of the conversations are in Russian. Most of the celebrants aren't tourists: They are St. Petersburg-area high school students marking the end of final exams. And of the little money they have on them, most appear to spend it on bottles of beer and cans of pre-mixed cocktails, sold in street kiosks here.

A UNESCO survey ranks St. Petersburg as one of the 10 places in the world tourists are most eager to visit. Yet the city drew a modest 2.6 million foreign tourists last year, along with 1 million non-foreigners. Almost 10 times more people visited New York.

Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of this city by Czar Peter the Great, an occasion that will be celebrated even in Baltimore with a citywide arts festival in February called Vivat! St. Petersburg.

But St. Petersburg government officials say they expect only a modest 6 percent to 8 percent rise in visitors.

No longer do authorities treat all tourists as potential spies, as they did during the Soviet era. Neither, it seems, do most officials realize how lucrative it could be to make their country a more open and welcoming place for visitors.

The trouble starts before tourists get here. A visa from the United States theoretically costs about $50 - if you plan well in advance. In reality, getting one in a reasonable length of time means paying a Russian travel agency up to $300. (Russians complain it's even harder to get a U.S. visa, which requires a personal interview.)

Passengers arriving in Moscow or St. Petersburg find cramped airports, long passport lines and seemingly arbitrary customs rules about bringing money in and out of the country. Hotels tend to be either expensive - with singles starting at $225 - or primitive. There are few signs in English, a system of gypsy cabs difficult for non-Russian speakers to negotiate, and admission prices that can be 10 or 20 times higher for foreigners than for Russians.

St. Petersburgers are justifiably proud of their city.

"Many tourists tell me that St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in Europe," says Anna Trubitsina, executive director of Calypso Travel here.

But it might also be among the most rundown of the world's cultural capitals. The facades of many of the city's mansions and 19th-century apartment houses are cracked, revealing the brick beneath. Pieces of crumbling balconies sometimes hit pedestrians below. Acid rain has scarred the stone walls of churches and monuments.

"I think it's a rather dirty city," says Loes Janssen, 56, a retired veterinarian from Groesbeek, Holland, standing outside the historic Winter Palace. "It looks a bit old and worn out."

The city and federal government here are spending $67 million to scrub and repair major government buildings and landmarks. But the task of rebuilding after 70 years of Communist rule and a decade of economic chaos is a massive one.

A short stroll from bustling Nevsky Prospekt - the city's Fifth Avenue - is the Demutov Traktir, a rooming house where poet Alexander Pushkin stayed in 1831. But no plaque marks this historic spot, and no one would risk bringing tour groups inside. Alcoholics stumble through its courtyard; its stairwell reeks of urine; its walls are splashed with graffiti.

Tamara Sherdeva, 75, lives in one room of a communal apartment on the Traktir's third floor, sharing a kitchen and toilet with a dozen neighbors who live in the other four rooms. There is no bath; residents bathe at a public bathhouse.

"It was once so beautiful," says the white-haired Sherdeva. "But look what it has turned into. It's like living in the Stone Age."

President Vladimir V. Putin recently complained that money for renovations here was being spent too slowly. Repair efforts can drag on for weeks, or months, residents say. Weathered wooden scaffolding covers several spires that loom over Nevsky Prospekt, with no apparent progress since February.

Boris Shevenko, deputy chief of the city's tourism committee, declines to predict that St. Petersburg will complete its renovation projects in time for the celebrations. "Not even God can say for sure," he says.

Natalya Kushmilova, 62, runs a modest bed-and-breakfast in her three-bedroom apartment on the Moika Canal, at one of the city's most fashionable addresses. But it's awkward to have visitors when her roof leaks or ancient pipes burst.

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