St. Petersburg, 22 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- St. Petersburg is certainly one of the world's most beautiful cities. But it still came as a surprise when recent St. Petersburg Department of Tourism statistics showed that the number of tourists visiting the city has been increasing by eight-to-ten percent every year for the past three years.
Officials had feared that perceived instability in Russia, in general, and reports on the high crime rate would keep tourist away.
A bit fewer than 2.5-million people visited St Petersburg in 1997, and almost two-million of them were from outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). According to the Tourism Department's head, Boris Shevenko, spending by tourists contributed about 667-million to St Petersburg's economy last year; a figure which accounted for over ten percent of local GDP.
Tourism to the city is quite seasonal, with most people coming in the Summer months, which peaks in the two weeks during the White Nights, at the end of June and early July.
When the 1997 tourist statistics are broken down by country, neighboring Finland was - not surprisingly - way ahead of the pack, with a whopping 869,000 visitors in 1997. Far-away U.S.A. came in at fifth place with 59,000 visitors. But this growth in the city's tourist industry was all the more surprising, since the situation was so bleak just a few years ago.
In 1992, according to the World Tourism Organization, fewer than three-million people visited all of Russia and the other CIS members. This record low was blamed on fears of rampant crime and political instability.
Ruodolf Manoukyan, head of the St Petersburg travel agency, Skandanavia-Petersburg Co., remembers that 1991-93 were the worse tourist years. "Only in 1994, when crime and the political and economic situation stabilized did business pick up," he tell RFE/RL.
But the city's more recent success is proving something of a headache for city authorities, since the tourism infrastructure is underdeveloped, unable to cope with the rising influx of tourists.
Nearly all tour operators appear to be unanimous that the problems to be overcome are indeed great, and that they and the city are missing out on a big opportunity to make money.
"The city tourism infrastructure has reached its limit, because the government has not been paying attention to what is happening in the industry. There is no overall coordination of tourism policy in St Petersburg," said Pia Jonson, managing director of DSR travel agency in St Petersburg.
Jonson credits the booming Summer cruise-line industry, which registered significant growth in 1997 over 1996, for its big contribution to increasing tourist tallies. She added that the growth in cruise travel in the Baltic Sea region was faster than cruise travel anywhere in world. She says, "new and bigger ships are being built specifically for the Baltic region in order to accommodate the growing number of tourists here."
But the city's dilapidated port facilities cannot accommodate the increasing number of cruise boats, and there is a limit on how many ships can docked at once in the city port. City government officials say they have lots of plans, but little money to improve tourist facilities.