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Reappearing Earth - Re-opening Kamchatka to tourism

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Reappearing Earth - Re-opening Kamchatka to tourism

Control Risks Alfa Fellow Helen Beckner recently visited the Kamchatka peninsula in far-east Russia. She met with locals to discuss the ecologically rich region’s growing prospects for tourism.

The far-flung Kamchatka peninsula is approximately 6,800 km (4,225 miles) from Moscow – which is nearly four times the distance between London and Moscow – and about two-thirds the size of the state of California. Until 1991 the area was under Soviet military control and therefore inaccessible to civilians, so it’s still largely underdeveloped. Described variously as “remote”, “mysterious” or “inhospitable”, it’s also breathtaking: there are over 30 active volcanoes, beaches on its Pacific coast, natural hot springs and hundreds of species of plants and animals, including approximately 30,000 bears. It’s no wonder that tourism, as I discovered, appears to be a growing industry. When travel and tourism start up again, Kamchatka could be a destination for the adventurous.

This growth is despite significant obstacles: the peninsula remains a strategic military location and still has limited transport infrastructure, factors which would pose ongoing challenges to any burgeoning industry. 

The government of Kamchatka claims that tourism is among the most promising sectors for investment behind (1) fishing and seafood packaging, (2) gold and minerals mining and (3) energy production from geothermal heat, natural gas and water. In late 2019, the Agency for Tourism and External Relations of the Kamchatka territory stated that the number of visitors has been growing at a rate of 5-8% year on year. Most tourists are Russian nationals, but the agency has also seen an increase in foreign nationals visiting the region. Visitors include outdoor enthusiasts, volcanologists and ecologists. 

The tour operators I spoke with were positive about the growth of the industry. They have increased the variety of tour packages on offer and have witnessed a rise in tour start-ups over the past few years. They pointed out the new ski complexes and resorts around the peninsula’s natural hot springs, as well as modern apartments in the regional capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky – evidence that the quality of life there is slowly improving. 

In the days of the Soviet Union, the region was a base for airfields and early-warning radar systems. Isolated parts of the peninsula served as missile testing sites, and the Soviet Pacific fleet was based along the Pacific coastline. Today, the Russian military has outposts along the Pacific coastline and the Avacha Bay. The public can access certain areas if they come with a guide or a permit, but some places remain off-limits. This includes a spot on Avacha Bay opposite Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where several nuclear submarine mooring sites are located. I was fortunate to be traveling with experienced guides who knew the ins and outs of getting around the region, and who had the necessary documentation in the event of security authorities questioning our presence. Locals tend to downplay the movement restrictions, but tourists who travel alone might find getting around to be a bit tedious.

Transport infrastructure within the region remains limited. The harsh weather and geological conditions make it difficult for commercial and freight ground transport. Most travelers and shipments arrive by air from Moscow, or the eastern Russian cities of Khabarovsk or Vladivostok. Shipping routes from mainland Russia via the Sea of Okhotsk can be disrupted in winter when the sea freezes, or during storms, which can happen at any time of year. The northern part of the peninsula, which connects to mainland Russia, is often inaccessible due to extreme weather conditions on the tundra.

The region’s isolated location and transport difficulties lead to a higher cost of food (with the exception of local seafood products) in restaurants and grocery stores. Fuel is also expensive compared to mainland Russia. I noticed that restaurants in resort areas often ran out of more than half of the items listed on their menus. Tour operators fear that the continued high cost of living will make it difficult for locals to make ends meet unless there is a consistent source of income from local industries and businesses. 

Tourism will continue to be a promising sector for local businesses. I felt welcomed by the locals and could sense a clear eagerness in the air for more visitors. However, the area’s underdeveloped transport infrastructure and security-related movement restrictions will continue to pose challenges, making it unclear how much the tourism sector here will be able to grow.

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