A land of volcanoes and geysers, Kamchatka has long been nearly inaccessible to visitors, which made it all the more attractive. However, the recent growth in inbound tourism to Kamchatka (both domestic and overseas) is apparent to even the least attentive observer. In 2015, the tourist flow into the region increased by 3.5 times, reaching a total of 180,000 visitors.
The trend is partly attributed to the current economic crisis, which has made vacationing at many resorts abroad unaffordable for Russian tourists. More importantly, the local authorities are making serious efforts to support the development of Kamchatka’s tourism infrastructure, which used to be almost non-existent.
“Kamchatka is inseparable from tourism. Its incredible natural beauty deserves to be shown!” says Vladimir Ilyukhin, Governor of Kamchatka Krai. Currently, however, the tourism infrastructure is still fairly underdeveloped: hotels and tourist information centres are few and far between, and the airport is failing to cope with the growing passenger flow. Despite being bordered by one ocean and two seas, the peninsula still does not have a passenger sea terminal of its own.
“The absence of infrastructure seriously limits inbound tourism,” says Yuri Zubar, Deputy Head of the Government of Kamchatka Krai. He also claims that demand for tourist services, including cruises, currently exceeds supply by several times. “However, the tourist flow is picking up. The number of airline passengers grew by 50,000 in 2015 alone, mostly due to tourism. And our 34-cabin cargo-passenger ship is working non-stop,” he shared.
“Cruise ships drop anchor in the bay; the passengers are then taken ashore by smaller boats to undergo embarkation procedures. Nobody is satisfied with this arrangement,” says Yuri Zubar. “It’s inconvenient for the tourists as the procedures are very time-consuming. Besides, we can’t offer our visitors the appropriate standard of tourist services on shore. As of today, there is no proper tourist zone where exhibitions, museums and souvenir shops are located within reach.”
However, according to Zubar, the tourist zone is currently emerging as a result of the reconstruction taking place in the city centre and the new tourist amenities along the bay, where the new sea terminal will open for passengers late this year. In May 2017, a wharf with improved checkpoint facilities will be added. Construction of a new airport terminal will also commence at the end of 2016 and is expected to be finished in two years.
Although investments were not readily available in the recent past, the vigorous tourist flow has convinced businesses that Kamchatka can be a worthwhile investment, the Governor stressed. Most of the investors are regional businesses, yet prominent national players are gradually showing interest as well.
Unbeatable Exchange Rates
One of the key regional investors in Kamchatka is Vityaz-Aero, the largest helicopter carrier in the Russian Far East (95% of the regional market) with a fleet of 25 aircraft. Helicopter companies perform flights throughout the peninsula without limiting themselves to the key tourist destinations.
Although helicopters are more expensive to operate in comparison to planes, they frequently provide the only way to get from place to place. Since helicopters do not need landing strips, they are particularly useful in the harsh conditions of the north.
The fares, however, are not cheap: a 170-kilometer flight to Ozernovsky Village may cost $278 one way – more than a trip from Petropavlovsk to Moscow. Concessions for local residents are available; a discounted single ticket to the same destination would cost a less painful $108.
This year, Vityaz-Aero has renovated its air terminal, which was extended by three times to account for the swelling tourist flow. “In 2015, we used to fly a maximum of ten-tourist groups per day; today, this number has almost doubled,” says Aleksey Khazov, Chairman of Vityaz-Aero’s Supervisory Board.
In 2015, Vityaz-Aero carried a total of 20,000 tourists. Although no conclusive data for 2016 is currently available, the tourist flow appears to have risen by an estimated 50%, Aleksey Khazov points out. This includes both Russian and foreign tourists. “The crisis affecting the Russian tourism industry has worked positive changes for us,” Khazov says. “The tourist flow has been growing over the past three or four years despite the dwindling purchasing power [of the rouble].”
Due to political problems, foreign inbound tourism to Kamchatka experienced a bit of a setback in 2015. However, favourable currency exchange rates are making the area increasingly attractive as a holiday destination for international visitors. Some of these tourists travel here to go hunting and fishing. In 2016, Kamchatka issued 2,000 bear hunting licences, compared to just 500 last year.
Another strategy that is being utilised to encourage development is the new Far Eastern Hectare programme, whereby the Russian government offers citizens free land in the remote areas of the country to foster regional economic growth. According to Yuri Zubar, the scheme now covers Kamchatka’s Bolsheretsky District. The area will serve as a testing ground to check the viability of the project and the mechanisms involved in land allocation, including the work of the electronic database and coordination between several federal structures. About 35% of the land in the pilot district has been earmarked for the scheme; some applications from wannabe Kamchatka residents have already been filed and accepted. Most of the land plots will be used for tourist infrastructural facilities, fish farms and hunting ranches.
Large investments will still be required. Construction projects in Kamchatka are usually more expensive since building materials and equipment mostly have to be transported from the mainland, Yuri Zubar explains. However, due to effective interventions, the local road construction costs are now comparable to the national average.
As a whole, the Far East provides excellent prospects for economic growth, thanks to federal projects. The highest hopes are associated with the nine priority development areas (PDAs) that have been established as part of the Far East and the Free Port Project in Vladivostok. Apart from tourism, PDAs in Kamchatka will focus on logistical and agricultural development. Residential deficits are not problematic as Kamchatka’s potential, which exceeds Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in area combined, is practically limitless.
A Date With Nature
Kamchatka offers travel experiences and adventures that suit every taste, if not every budget. However, the area is particularly appealing to nature lovers. “There are countless resorts for generic beach holidays, but Kamchatka or Baikal Lake are places for a date with nature. And this is the type of tourist we are looking for,” says Gevork Shkhiyan, Head of Kamchatka Krai Agency for Tourism and External Relations.
According to Shkhiyan, environmental concerns remain the key factor restricting inbound tourist flow to the area. Over the past seven years, the number of climbers that have visited Kamchatka’s 30 active volcanoes increased from 800 to 5,000; this growth poses some risks for the ecosystem, especially for the endemic plants that are unique to the area. To prevent environmental damage, tourist flows into natural parks must be redistributed by creating special tourist centres. The PDA programme includes plans for 26 such centres to be established around Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
This reverential attitude to conservation is hardly surprising: a large part of the peninsula constitutes a protected area comprised of three sanctuaries, five natural parks and several natural reserves of federal and local importance. With dozens of extinct and active volcanoes, thermal and mineral springs, geysers and boiling lakes, Kamchatka is a massive natural museum of volcanology. In 1996, the volcanoes located in Kamchatka were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Kamchatka is also highly popular with fans of extreme sports such as mountain and cross-country skiing, heli-skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, skijoring and surfing. “Kamchatka was a hit among foreign surfers long before it became popular within the Russian surfing community,” says Anton Morozov, one of the founders of the only surf school that exists in Russia, which is located 50 meters away from the Pacific Ocean. “It took us five years to dispel the stereotypes that existed about surfing and plant the seeds of this culture here. But we mainly did it for our own sakes. We wanted to live near the ocean, something we always dreamt about since we took up surfing,” he says. “Many Russian surfers now choose our surf school because we have a highly professional team, because Kamchatka is part of Russia and because of that special magical veneer Kamchatka has.” However, Morozov says he wouldn’t call his school a best-value tourist destination. “We have nothing to offer tourists here. This suits us, though, as it helps our guests forget about their concrete jungle and enjoy a simple lifestyle along with surfing,” he adds.
Anton is planning to set up a surf school for children – but this requires the appropriate infrastructure and considerable investing. “Investors are difficult to find – in business, everyone wants quick returns,” the surfer says. “I wouldn’t call it a business, though – this is what I live for.”
Author: Tatiana Romanova