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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Sunday Travel Section

The Russian people, via Internet voting, have chosen the "seven wonders of Russia."

Well, Russian people is an overstatement of course, since the vast majority of Russians have no regular access to the Internet (and how could they, when the average salary is $4/hour while the cost of Internet access is similar to that in the West).

Here are five of their seven choices (picked from a list of 50):

(a) Mt. Elbrus

(b) The Valley of the Geysers

(c) The Stone Idols

(d) Peterhof

(e) The Motherland Statue

Congratulations if you've ever even heard of, much less seen a picture of, much less actually visited, any of these.

Geyser Valley, Russia's pale imitation of Yellowstone, isn't even in continental Russia, it's on the remote and largely inaccessible peninsula of Kamchatka in the Far East. Russians may not have noticed, but last year it was wiped out by a landslide. Perhaps state-owned Russian TV forgot to mention it. Even before that, more Americans probably visit Yellowstone in any given day than Russians see Geyser Valley in a year. Guess Russia is kind of down to six wonders, now.

Stone Idols, in the far northern Komi Republic, is Russia's Easter Island. Good luck trying to find photographs of them swamped with tourists. Indeed, as even Russia Today admits, the whole point of having the "seven wonders" voting was to convince Russians who otherwise ignore these ho-hum items to pay them more attention.

And even more good luck visiting Mt. Elbrus, the Russian Everest. It's practically in Georgia and surrounded by a seething cauldron of terrorism. Wikipedia notes: "It is said to be home to the 'world's nastiest' outhouse which is close to being the highest privy in Europe. The title was conferred by Outside Magazine following a 1993 search and article. The outhouse is surrounded by and covered in ice, perched off the end of a rock, and with a pipe pouring effluvia onto the mountain."

You will see tourists swarming over the remaining two items on the list, as they are man-made and located in large cities.

The Motherland Statue is Russia's version of the Statute of Liberty (except that it carries a sword instead of torch, pretty apropos for Russia). It's rather inconveniently located in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. You'll actually see people looking at it, but most of them will have a look on their face that says: "I came all the way here for this?" In essence, it's a monument to the Soviet Union, which murdered millions of its own citizens and then imploded spectacularly. Peterhof, the country palace of Peter I in St. Petersburg, is actually a genuinely serious national tourist attraction for Russians. But it's not exactly Versailles. Basically, it's a pretty nice park with a big house on it. Peterhof is a Dutch word (likewise, Petersburg is not Russian). It was built by Francesco Bartholomeo Rastrelli. If he doesn't sound like a Russian to you, it's because he isn't. Most ordinary people outside Russia have never heard of either one.

Russia has two genuinely world-famous features, the Cathedral of St. Basil on Red Square and Lake Baikal in Siberia, deepest body of fresh water in the world. They round out the seven wonders, and they're quite similar in that you can't really appreciate Baikal because you can't see its inner "depth" and if you go inside St. Basil's you basically find an empty hulk that the Soviets considered blowing up because it got in the way of their military parade.

Even if Russia had world-leading attractions that were physically accessible, that wouldn't mean foreign tourists could safely glimpse them. In its 2007 report on travel and tourism competitiveness, Booz Allen rated Russia #119 in the world out of 124 countries under review in terms of how inclined to welcome tourists the national population is (page 443). Russia miserably failed basic criteria like whether you're likely to get out alive after your trip. Only 31 countries in the world, out of 124 reviewed, had a higher incidence of AIDS than Russia (p. 437). Only 40 countries had a higher incidence of tuberculosis (p. 439). Only 35 had a lower life expectancy (p. 440). In terms of national wonders, Russia doesn't rank in the top 50 nations of the world in share of national territory protected from development (the U.S. ranks #10 with over 25% protected; Russia is #53 with just 8%, see page 448) and it ranked #113 in terms of business concern for the ecology (p. 449).

Russia ranked #114 in terms of respecting tourist property rights (p. 313) and #106 in terms of the burdensomeness of its visa regime. It ranked #105 in terms of the reliability of police protection and #108 in terms of health and hygiene. It was #103 in terms of road infrastructure quality.

Only four governments on the planet placed lower emphasis on travel and tourism than the regime of Vladimir Putin. You'd have to have some pretty damned impressive attractions to make up for something like that, now wouldn't you?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Valley of Geysers feels good. It was immediately reported about the landslide, because 'the state owned television' most of all likes to inform people about accidents. Now it looks quite like before the landslide, partly as the result of recovery work and generally out of natural regeneration.

Stone Idols, as well as other wonders, were chosen RuNet users out of several dozens of other items.

Elbrus and Kazbek are not in Georgia, and I can't understand how you can call patriots' fight for freedom 'terrorism'. Though there're none freedom fighters on Elbrus, alpinists only.

'The Motherland Statue' is a part of the Malakhov Barrow memorial (that was chosen as a whole), dedicated not to the Soviet Union, but to the Stalingrad battle.

One more of the St.Basil cathedral's churches has been just opened after the funituring.

Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-1771) spent all his life in Russia, and I'll tell nobody that the Statue of Liberty was created by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.

Last year the Russian Web had about 30 mln of users. Their choise was absolutely logical, that can't be said about the childish rules of the game, mixing the natural items with historical and supposing to point out only one item for a federal distric. It's a good model to promote really interesting items, which are not broadly known, but it's a very narrow sistem.