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Saint Petersburg needs a global conception in order to further develop its tourism industry
April 20 marked the end of a two-day conference entitled 'Saint Petersburg-300: Russia's Cultural Megalopolis in the World of Tourism,' whose main themes included a synopsis of last year's jubilee year celebrations, and the tourism potential for the City on the Neva. Practitioners and theorists of Petersburg tourism, as well as representatives of the city's diplomatic corps, recognized that Saint Petersburg's 300-year anniversary was a powerful advertising campaign for the city on the international tourism circuit. The problem, however, was that the city proved to be unprepared for the long-term assimilation of the jubilee's 'dividends' in the form of a heightened interest in Russia's Northern Capital among tourists. Last year, Saint Petersburg hosted 3.2 million international visitors and 1 million Russian guests, while 270 ships made ports of call carrying some 210,000 passengers and 90,000 crew members on board. While the average yearly increase in the number of tourists previously totaled 6%-8%, in 2003 that figure rose to 15%-18%, whereas the number of ships dropping anchor rose by a quarter. Naturally, the boom was made possible by international jubilee celebrations, and by contrast with the first post-Soviet year of 1992 -- when the number of tourists was a scant 460,000 -- that in and of itself was a fairly optimistic indicator. Which is why city planners have decided to take advantage of the city's attractions to the full, transforming Saint Petersburg into a European tourism center where that industry will become one of its main economic engines. In connection with this, local authorities have also increased the tempo of their work to create a positive tourism image of the city. The brand name 'White Nights,' which has been in use for many years to attract scores of visitors every summer, has lately become something of a headache inasmuch as it has created an imbalance in the number of visitors arriving during the summer and winter seasons, respectively. Thus, while hotels are full in the summer, during the winter months their occupancy rates hover between 40% and 60% and sometimes fall to as low as 30%. To counterbalance the summer season, hoteliers have worked out a program of 'White Days,' supported by city authorities and the city's main cultural institutions, to prepare more spectacular and elaborate events during the winter season, such as festivals, exhibitions, concerts, etc. It is possible that 'White Days' will in time become a tourism brand name for the city in winter, but Saint Petersburg needs a global conception in order to further develop its tourism industry. According to the city's Tourism Committee press secretary, Valentin Zakharov -- a committee which recently inaugurated itself as a unified planning agency for tourism and foreign relations -- the Russian Ministry for Economic Development and Trade has allocated 14 million rubles to the project. Addressing the conference, Zakharov said that several companies have already expressed an interest in working out a new conception to position the city as a tourist destination. 'Besides which,' he said, 'these are all foreign companies. But we hope that a competition will be announced to undertake this enormous project, and that Russian companies will also present their proposals. Meanwhile, it is imperative that we understand exactly was sort of Petersburg brand we want.' In Zakharov's estimation, attracting foreign firms to work on a tourism brand name will provide St. Petersburg with the necessary international rating, and will help make clear what exactly it is that foreign tourists wish to see when they visit the city. But he reminded listeners of the disappointing experience of the early-1990s, when foreign companies interested in Petersburg's tourism potential offered their vision of what they thought the city should look like - a vision that called for placing a brown bear with a samovar and hoop every 100 meters along Nevsky Prospekt, and a gypsy camp every 200 meters. Saint Petersburg's high international rating is obvious - according to UNESCO, it ranks eighth in the world in terms of tourist interest, and 72% of European tourists, and that equals about 30 million people annually, would like to visit. To accommodate that many people is simply not possible at present for objective reasons, for example, due to the shortage of hotels. Currently, Petersburg has some 200 facilities (17,000 rooms), which can accommodate a mere 32,000 people at a time, not to mention that 50 of those hotels were constructed specifically for the 300-year jubilee. But the relation between price and quality in Petersburg's hotels does not conform to any standards. More than that, the capacity of the Pulkovo airport is limited, the city suffers from a critical transportation shortage, there are not enough qualified interpreters and tour guides, especially for sightseeing tours, the environmental situation is bad and the criminal situation adversely affects tourists. To this day, Saint Petersburg continues to reap the harvest of the nickname it earned earlier as 'Russia's criminal capital.' And even if the majority of the city's inhabitants would take issue with that characterization, nevertheless that reputation scares off foreign tourists. Thus, as noted the US consul in St. Petersburg, David Siefkin, his fellow countrymen are afraid to visit the city. 'Americans consider Saint Petersburg to be a dangerous city, because they have heard about horrific muggings on the streets, about corrupt officials, about attacks by skinheads,' he said. 'In addition, we are not used to being stopped by some official to have our documents checked. That is why Americans feel themselves more at ease in New York or Washington.' Nevertheless, the United States ranks second among nations whose tourists visit Saint Petersburg, behind only Finland. For Americans, the consulate even organizes special briefings on how to behave on Saint Petersburg's streets - for example, they are taught to recognize, by dress and other signs, who the Gypsies are well ahead of time, before they are surrounded, how to avoid being victimized by any number of scams and robberies, as well as to present their documents to law enforcement officials without argument. Nearly all representatives of the tourism industry note Saint Petersburg's unique architecture, its rich museums, its mythology and abundance of history, which draws tourists to it. And, of course, namely its cultural variety is what must become the city's calling card. Saint Petersburg's tourism industry should emphasize the city's positive aspects, relegating its negative attributes to a poor infrastructure, a not-altogether ideal criminal situation, and environmental problems. 'Right now, the Finnish capital is conducting a tourism campaign under the rubric 'Finland - it's not just a large shot of vodka,' according to Aleksei Chechulin, head of public relations for the Herzen State Pedagogical University. 'That is an original approach by the Finns, who like all things postmodern, but I would submit it is a bit too radical for our town.' We would be closer, I would say, to the German slogan 'Live it again,' a slogan which has already generated a positive reaction in Bremen, and inspires beneficial emotions.' It is necessary to create a brand name for the city which will, first and foremost, bring under its aegis the efforts of all those interested in attracting tourists, in the same way as was done a year ago when Saint Petersburg was positioned on the international stage. 'At that time, there was a lot of negativity with the way the jubilee was perceived by Petersburg residents themselves,' according to Chechulin. 'Even the slogan of the jubilee, 'Time to live in Petersburg,' was unpopular.' While it is true that the efforts of the authorities to transform the city into a 'cultural Mecca,' which will bring in more revenue, increase the city's budget for services and create new jobs, one should not forget the negative consequences of a tourism boom - seasonal employment for the local inhabitants, the draining away of workers from other spheres, a worsening of the environment, as well as a range of other problems. That is why Saint Petersburg's bright tourism future, which already anticipates hosting 5 million foreign visitors by 2007, is a two-edged sword. Overall, Russia's tourism sector will, according to international experts, continue to grow actively in the near future, compared to other countries. But the problem of Russia's tourism industry involves an unclear legislative and legal base, as well as the fact that for every tourist arriving in Russia, three leave, and that means that there exists a powerful outflow of currency from the Russian economy. The reorientation of Russian tourism from external to internal is an even more difficult problem than trying to attract more foreign visitors to Russia. And Saint Petersburg's new positioning on the international tourism market must begin right away, while emotions aroused by the grand celebrations of the jubilee year have not cooled, and before the Olympic Games begin in Greece, which will also be used as a major catalyst for tourist interest in that country, perhaps even more successful than the 300-year jubilee
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