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Russian holiday: just for the hardy

Only three million tourists visited the country last year.

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At first glance, the view from Sochi's Black Sea shore looks almost perfect: sparkling blue sea, a broad band of beach backed by palm trees and green hills, a range of snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Then a freight train rumbles down the beachfront within a few feet of sunbathers - and the idyll shatters.

The legacy of hamhanded Soviet planners is only one of many obstacles facing tour operators as they try to entice Western travelers to post-Soviet Russia.

Though it is the world's largest country, with natural wonders, unique architecture, and famous art museums, Russia places almost last among European lands as a tourist destination.

The Russian Tourism Union, an association of 1,000 private companies, recently cited red tape, high prices, poor infrastructure and service, and security fears as key reasons foreign tourism fell by 25 percent this year.

Even many Russians are opting for cheaper and better vacation packages offered in southern Europe and Asia, the group said.

"Whenever I talk to Americans about Russia they inevitably say, 'Why on earth would you go there?' " says Jeff Wilgos, a Bostonian who's building a holiday village in the central town of Suzdal, the third main tourist destination after Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In Soviet times, a trip behind the Iron Curtain was a cold war thrill, and a bit of deprivation was regarded as part of the experience. Nearly 7 million Westerners trooped to the USSR in 1991, most with the state firm Intourist.

Last year, barely 3 million foreign tourists (including 182,000 Americans) came to Russia, few venturing beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. The vast majority still travel with package tours offered by Intourist, now a private firm, and other operators who usher travelers through hurdles - at a steep price.

"People pay almost twice as much to visit Russia as it costs to vacation in other European countries,"says Sergei Synitsyn, adviser to the chief of Russia's official tourist agency Rosturist. "This is mostly due to the cost of accommodation. We don't yet have a range of affordable hotels."

Russian tourists took $20 billion abroad last year but spent just $1 billion traveling at home. Foreigners spent about $2 billion, according to Rosturist.

For individuals, planning a Russia trip can be daunting. Internet-based companies have sprung up to help with visas. But official help is almost nonexistent. "We hope for real funding in future but right now, basically, we don't have a penny to provide information to would-be visitors," says Mr. Synitsyn.

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