Russia's 'Yellowstone' is a tough sell to foreign tourists
Efforts to promote wild and remote Kamchatka peninsula to outdoors enthusiasts fall short.
VALLEY OF THE GEYSERS, KAMCHATKA, RUSSIA
The helicopter flies directly above the volcano, past the plumes of smoke and the turquoise crater lake. It lands in a sculpted yellow gorge, where waterfalls froth and geysers thunder 150 feet up into air that bears a whiff of sulfur.
In theory this could be Russia's Yellowstone, a source of vital tourist income while the country unravels in economic disarray. Primeval Kamchatka holds delights for all categories of outdoors enthusiasts - fishermen, mountain climbers, downhill skiers, campers, dog sledders, fossil collectors, and game hunters.
But something is wrong, and it isn't the fire-spitting mountain, the bears lumbering uncomfortably close by, or the forbidding cauldrons of boiling mud that appear so easy to fall into.
The problem is, where are the tourists?
"They're, well, not here," says a park ranger, gazing at the mere handful of Japanese retirees enjoying the landscape.
The Kamchatka peninsula, in Russia's Far East, is one of the most pristine and strange places on earth, known as "the land of fire and ice" for its 414 glaciers and more than 100 volcanos, 29 of which are active. These include Mt. Klyuchevskoy, the largest active volcanoes on the Eurasian land mass.
The peninsula, closer to Alaska than to Moscow as it juts down between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, is waiting to be explored.
Its 20 climate zones encompass arid lunar-looking landscapes, 300 geysers, 100,000 lakes, thermal hot springs, and alpine meadows. These hold the tusks and other remains of extinct woolly mammoths, and are home to indigenous reindeer herders, wild snow sheep, sable, elk, and an estimated 7,000 large brown bears, cousins of the North American grizzly.
'Most unspoiled' on earth
UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, has put five nature reserves or parks in Kamchatka on its natural heritage list and experts say the geysers and volcanoes here are more unspoiled than anything seen elsewhere on the planet. And for the present it appears likely to remain unspoiled - and largely inaccessible.
For Kamchatka is also one of the most remote and undeveloped parts of Russia, especially its Chukotka region. Winters are so harsh, and transporting supplies is so difficult, that this year villagers are talking about evacuating as the region runs low on fuel reserves.
The peninsula's half-million residents, who mainly depend on fishing for their livelihoods, don't seem to know how to promote tourism abroad, and the bankrupt federal government has no support to dish out.
A long-held secret
Another reason Kamchatka is a world tourism secret is that the territory, which lies nine time zones from Moscow, was closed to foreigners during much of the Soviet era. It was used to test missiles after World War II and declared off limits to nonresidents.
Kamchatka opened up to the world only after the Soviet Union's 1991 breakup, and tourism has been slow to take off. The main travel options, helicopter or airplane, are costly. In addition, there are only 500 hotel beds in what passes for the capital, Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy, and no sleeping facilities at most nature reserves.
"Ecotourism could be a major direction to diversify our economy away from fishing, which accounts for 85 percent of the local budget," says Alexandra Balenko, who heads Kamchatka's representational office in Moscow. "But getting federal financing is a terrible problem these days."
As for local investors, park officials complain that every time someone tries to initiate a new project, they are stonewalled by Krechet Aviation, which runs the area's helicopter service. Krechet has no money to expand its current business and fiercely defends its virtual monopoly on flights to prime tourist venues. Krechet maintains there is no room for competition because much of the peninsula is protected territory and therefore only a limited number of people can visit sites per day.
According to a glossy promotional pamphlet put out by the local government, tourism could draw 300,000 people annually "if minimum of nature conservation infrastructure will be created" (sic).
But officials expect at most 6,000 foreign tourists this year, most of them retirees from nearby Japan.
A case in point is the peninsula's most popular tourist draw: the Valley of the Geysers. Some 90 miles north of the capital, it is accessible only by helicopter and there are no prospects for staying the night.
Likewise, only 1,000 visitors each year visit the Nalychevo nature park, 60 miles by road from Kamchatka's capital. One can camp there, but only with special permission from authorities.
Prospects for building more hotels or campsites in the interior of the peninsula are limited by high constructions costs, because materials have to be flown in.
"Kamchatka is a remote place with a bad transport system," says local tourism minister Alexander Potievsky. "Unfortunately, there are no foreign investors. They are searching for economic stability and there is none."