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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Sunday Travel Section: Russia Spits in your Eye

The Moscow Times reports:

Surly babushkas. Sky-high prices. Hotels that claim to have only pricey deluxe suites available when many of the rooms are obviously empty. These are some of the complaints that foreign visitors to Moscow have posted on the web site TripAdvisor, which released a survey this week calling the Russian capital the third-unfriendliest city in Europe.

Moscow ranked third in a list of "European Cities with the Most Unfriendly Hosts" according to the more than 1,400 travelers from around the world queried by TripAdvisor, a portal that calls itself the world's largest online travel community, with more than 25 million visitors per month. The rudest locals live in Paris, while the second-rudest live in London, according to the survey. The survey results, released this week, ranked the top European cities in a broad range of categories, including the best bargain (Prague), the most expensive (London), the dirtiest (also London) and the most boring (Brussels).

Moscow only came up in one category: the most unfriendly hosts.

Dmitry Shultsev, a spokesman for the city government's tourism committee, denied that Moscow was an unfriendly place and suggested that the report was deliberately biased in order to scare away potential visitors. "We do not agree with this," Shultsev said by telephone Thursday. "Every year Moscow is becoming more comfortable, more interesting, cozier and more attractive for our guests from abroad." Similar reports have appeared in the international media just before the start of every tourist season for the past five years, Shultsev said. "They do everything possible to keep Russia down and to depict it in a negative light in order to reduce the flow of foreigners in Moscow," he said.

A London-based spokesman for TripAdvisor called the allegation "ridiculous" and insisted that the report was simply based on travelers' answers. "The survey also has London as the dirtiest and most expensive," Ian Rumgay said. "So is that a plot to dissuade people from going to London?" Rumgay said he could not think of a previous occasion when local tourism officials had responded critically to a negative result in a TripAdvisor survey.

The rankings were based on answers by users who had agreed to participate in the survey, said Rumgay, who provided data that suggested Russian tourism officials did not have that much to worry about. The rankings were determined by travelers' responses to the question "What European city's locals do you think are the most unfriendly hosts?" Given a list of cities, 40 percent chose Paris, 8 percent chose London and only 7 percent chose Moscow, Rumgay said. "So despite coming in third, Moscow in reality did not fare that badly," he said.

Rumgay could not say how many of the 1,400 survey respondents had actually been to Moscow. He conceded that London and Paris may have been popular responses because they are heavily visited cities. In previous TripAdvisor surveys, Moscow's name did not come up at all, Rumgay said, suggesting that may reflect the growing number of foreigners visiting Russia. TripAdvisor maintains a database of reviews written by travelers who offer opinions about hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions around the world. The Moscow section of the web site contains testimony about the quality of service on offer at various hotels and words of caution to future travelers. Some reviews are horror stories with scathing titles such as "Beware the Babushkas!" Shultsev, however, insisted that Moscow hotel staff were well-trained and denied that they were rude to foreign guests. "Such things never happen in Moscow's leading hotels," he said. "It might be possible that in certain second- and third-tier hotels the level of service is not high enough because of repairs or renovation. But to suggest that someone would insult or offend a foreign guest -- this is something I will never agree with."

Foreign visitors provided more critical accounts when told about the survey results in central Moscow on Thursday. "It took two hours for the hotel to find our reservations, and the whole time we were just sitting on our baggage in the hallway," Julia Feld, a tourist from Luxembourg, said while standing near the Kremlin. "But they were very friendly about it," her companion, Norbert Tewner, quickly interjected. Sitting on a sofa in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, German tourist Elizabeth Forsting, 44, expressed frustration about an attempt to get directions. "In London, if you stop someone on the street, they'll help you," she said. "Here, when I showed people a map, they wouldn't help me at all. I asked five different people for help, and they were all very unfriendly."

Forsting, who has previously visited countries like Thailand and Mexico, said her problems did not just stem from the language barrier. "I've been many other places where they don't speak English," she said. "But here they won't even try to help you by hand gestures or whatever." Forsting's anecdote echoed the results of a June 2006 survey that called Moscow one of the least polite cities in the world. In the survey, Reader's Digest magazine ranked Moscow 31st out of 36 cities after sending reporters to assess the politeness of locals by carrying out various tests, such as seeing whether store clerks said "thank you" after a purchase or noting how often people held doors open for them. The magazine found that Moscow and Bucharest were the rudest cities in Europe.

Not all the foreigners interviewed Thursday agreed that Muscovites were bad hosts. "If that's true, we certainly haven't felt it," said Martino, a 35-year-old French backpacker who declined to give her last name. Luciano Rossi, a member of the Italian parliament who was on an official visit to Moscow, defended Russian hospitality when asked for comment on Red Square. "I suggest that people respect the style of Russia," he said. "I myself am not a big fan of the kind of globalization that says that everything has to be the same."

The number of foreign tourists in Moscow reached 4.1 million in 2007, up 7.5 percent from the previous year, according to the city government's tourism committee. In 1999, there were less than 1.5 million tourists. One tourism expert agreed that the infrastructure supporting tourism in Moscow had improved tremendously in the past 10 years. Still, the city has a long way to go before it will be on par with major European capitals, said Helene Lloyd, director of TMI, a marketing and public relations company that studies the tourism sector. "I think the problem is that tourism is still not really considered an important sector for Russia," Lloyd said. "Until that happens, things are obviously going to go very slowly."

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