Tourism in Russia

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Tourism in Russia has been growing rapidly in the years following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Most of the tourism is centered on the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, since these cities are the sites of some of the most famous attractions of Russia, such as the Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, and the Kremlin in Moscow, and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the State Hermitage Museum, and the Church of the Savior on Blood in St. Petersburg, which recently celebrated the tricentennial of its founding in 2003. Tourists are attracted by the very rich cultural heritage and rather tumultuous history of Russia, and this is reflected in the popularity of Russia's most famous attractions.

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[edit] Attractions

Popular tourist destinations in the major cities include the following:

The Russian countryside tends to be quite rural and undeveloped. Vast stretches of tundra, taiga woodlands, and steppe stretch across vast expanses of the Eurasian continent -- Russia is a country that spans 11 time zones. In the countryside, there are many little towns with old cloisters and castles. Some notable cities and towns, which have their own own rich cultures and traditions, include Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) on the Baltic Sea coast, Novgorod (a famed midieval town) on Lake Ilmen, Tver, Vologda, Nizhni Novgorod, Kirov, Ekaterinburg, Rostov and Kazan.

Tourists are also drawn to the cruises on the big rivers like Volga, Lena or Yenisei as well as journeys on the famous Trans-Siberian railway, the third-longest continuous service that stretches from Moscow to its eastern terminous of Vladivostok at the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. Other destinations include the Golden Ring region towns of Yaroslavl, Vladimir, Rostov, Suzdal, Uglich, and Pereslavl-Zalessky.

While Russia, as a whole, may be the coldest country in the world, parts of the country have temperate climates, and most of the country has temperate weather during the summer. The coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea occur near the temperate Mediterranean climate zone due to its adjacency to the Mediterranean Sea. A popular vacationing destination is the city of Sochi, known for its beaches. The Crimea is also a favourite vacation resort; even though this autonomous region is in the Ukraine, many people associate it with Russia because of its long historical connection to Russia. Yalta is the best known vacation center, though Sevastopol is also well known.

Russian cuisine is rich and varied, due to the vast and multicultural expanse of the country. It draws its foundations from peasant food of the rural populations and tends to be dominated by cabbage, sour cream, root vegetables, and seasonal produce, fish, and meats. Some of the more distinctive Russian dishes include schi,borsch, blini, pirozhki, and pelmeni. Russia is also famous for its caviar, though severe overfishing has threatened the fisheries (primarily sturgeon) that provide the source of this delicacy. Russian vodka is also quite famous; Russians are heavy drinkers, and the Russian cyrillic word for vodka (водка) differs from water (вода) by only one letter.

[edit] Practical Matters

Despite these attractions, traveling in Russia presents many logistical challenges for foreigners, particularly those coming from Western countries. While Russia is becoming more open in recent years, it is still strongly recommended for prospective visitors to make extensive preparations for their visit and to be prepared for many potential problems that could arise during their visit.

[edit] Language

A first and foremost challenge that greets new visitors to Russia is the language barrier. The Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so reading and interpreting signs often present a challenge, since these signs frequently do not have the transliteration equivalent written in the Latin alphabet familiar to most Westerners. Furthermore, English is not spoken or understood except in the major cities, and even then, most people know perhaps just a few words if at all (though this is slowly changing). Visitors speaking English are almost immediately recognized as foreigners, however, and accordingly are frequently charged more for goods and services (compared to the Russian locals).

[edit] Transportation

The country's infrastructure is still poor in many areas; highways are not well-maintained, poorly marked and rather bumpy, and train tracks are in a constant state of disrepair. Land border crossings typically require at least an hour of wait time, frequently more on a particularly busy day, and involve multiple check points by border officials and the Russian military. Highways are frequently three-lane -- one lane in each direction and a poorly marked central lane that is used by vehicles in either direction. Russian drivers are generally quite aggressive, and collisions are common, making automobile travel a rather hazardous proposition, both on the highways and in the cities. Train accommodations are usually one or two levels below Western European standards. However, the metro systems in St. Petersburg and in Moscow are efficient and cheap, though they tend to be quite crowded and are a haven for petty criminals and corrupt Russian police.

The Russian government is actively making an effort in improving the country's infrastructure, particularly given its recent acquisition of the 1-year long presidency of the G8 group of nations. Much of the improvements in infrastructure and building renovations have actually been concentrated in St. Petersburg, the birthplace of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and former capital of Russia, from the founding of the city in 1703 to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Many buildings in St. Petersburg have recently been renovated, and there are considerable construction and renovation projects ongoing in the city.

[edit] Hotels

Most Russian hotels, particularly those in the major cities, are enormous, encompassing thousands of rooms. This originated primarily from the 1970s, when many of these hotels were built, primarily from Soviet-sponsored (and strictly monitored) tourism during that era. A typical large Russian hotel is almost a self-contained community, containing numerous restaurants, currency exchange bureaus, shops, medical clinic, entertainment center (e.g. bowling alley), and sometimes supermarkets. Because of this, the hotels are constantly busy, particularly during peak tourist season, with a constant flux of people entering and leaving the hotel at almost all times of the day.

[edit] Money

The primary unit of currency in Russia is the Russian ruble, which as of July 20, 2006 is trading at roughly 26.8 rubles to one US dollar or about 34.2 rubles to one Euro. Because the ruble is not a "hard" currency, many Russians living in the major cities keep a significant portion of their savings in US dollars or Euros, and change what they need at a bank or at one of the many currency exchange booths frequently found in the major cities. Most transactions are conducted in cash, though most hotels, tourist sites and attractions, and some restaurants accept major credit cards. While some of these locations list prices in US dollars or Euros, transactions are conducted in rubles. Because of the high incidence of petty crime and the high degree of corruption among Russian police, it is strongly recommended that visitors carry only the amount of cash needed for the day and keep the remainder in a room or hotel safe.

Russian goods and services operate on a dual economy. Basic necessities such as most groceries and basic transportation (e.g. the metro) are quite cheap, while goods and services that most Russians would consider discretionary (e.g. taxi, pricy restaurants, and fashionable clothing) command Western-level prices. Furthermore, foreigners are frequently charged a significantly higher price than locals for many goods and services. This may seem unfair to many, but on the other hand, most Russians make an average of US $80-150 per month and would otherwise be unable to afford many of those goods and services. Even Russian doctors (general practitioners) make only $400/month.

[edit] Service

Due to increasing numbers of foreign tourists and increasing opportunities for Russians for travel abroad, service in Russia is making steady improvement, though most foreigners would find Russian service to be mostly slow, rude, and inefficient - holdovers from the Soviet era. While younger Russians providing such services tend to be more polite and efficient, one may still frequently encounter a dour-faced Russian who may behave quite brusquely. Furthermore, many Russian attractions (e.g. museums, theaters, etc.) employ older Russian women, whose primary function are to strictly enforce the house rules and regulations, giving some visitors a rather authoritarian experience of Russian society.

During the weekends, many shops and services close, making it difficult for foreigners used to 7-day availability of services to attend to their needs during this period.

[edit] Safety

With the proper preparations, many foreigners are able to enjoy a smooth, uneventful visit to Russia. However, quite frequently, personal safety issues become a major concern for tourist visitors in Russia.

[edit] Water

Tap water in most of Russia is non-potable and thus not fit for drinking [1][2]. Drinking non-potable tap water in Russia frequently exposes visitors to groundwater bacteria and giardia, a water-borne parasite that can cause gastrointestinal distress. Some higher-class hotels have a filtered or treated water supply which is potable. In most other locations, it is strongly recommended to purchase bottled water as a source of drinkable water, and to use that for brushing teeth and washing fruits and vegetables. Bottled water is cheap and plentiful in most major cities and towns.

[edit] Food

With increasing tourism and foreign travel by Russians, the days of breaded mystery meat and overcooked vegetables have been replaced with trendy restaurants and international cuisine, at least in the major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Outside, however, it may be prudent to avoid salads, raw vegetables, and fruits that cannot be peeled, since these are usually washed with non-potable tap water. Fruits and vegetables tend to be rather rare, expensive, and of low quality in most grocery stores, reflecting the fact that the typical Russian diet consists primarily of meats, breads or grains, and dairy products

[edit] Drink

Russians are notoriously known for their heavy drinking habits and lax enforcement of liquor laws. Vodka is the most popular alcoholic beverage and is frequently consumed in impressive quantities that would stymie most foreigners. This is a particularly important point since Russians tend to be highly social drinkers, and it is often considered a cultural faux pas to refuse a drink with Russian acquaintances or business associates. Furthermore, publicly drunk foreigners are often an easy target of petty criminals. Occasionally, less reputable bars and pubs may add chemicals or sleeping additives to incapacitate unwitting foreigner patrons.

[edit] On the Street

Most tourist visitors have to contend with a high level of petty crime when visiting the major Russian cities (such as Moscow and St. Petersburg). Pickpockets and purse snatchers frequent popular tourist spots. One common ploy is to distract the target (foreigner) by distracting him/her in some way (often by thrusting some sign or pamphlet in the target's face), while an accomplice picks the pocket of the target and hands the contents off to a third accomplice that is walking down the street. Perhaps more worrisome, however, is dealing with the Russian police Militsiya, which tends to be very corrupt. They frequently target foreigners (most easily identifiable to them by the foreigners speaking English) and detain them with little or no probable cause (which is not required in Russia). They usually detain on the pretense of checking the foreigner's papers (i.e. valid passport and visa) but most often end up requiring a bribe before they become willing to release the detainees. Occasionally, some Russian police go as far as robbing the detained foreigners outright, again under the pretense of checking the foreigner's papers, usually by searching the foreigner(s) and returning the foreigner's papers and valuables (minus most if not all currency that the foreigner had on hand).

Violent crime against foreigners has become less frequent, though if a foreigner finds him/herself a victim of such a crime, it presents a particularly difficult situation for the foreigner. The Russian people have quite a fatalistic approach towards life, and Russian passersby are quite unlikely to stop and assist the victim if (s)he is in the midst of being robbed, beaten, or otherwise assaulted. The Russian police are often not much help either -- enforcement is often inconsistent, and the victim may sometimes be called out repeatedly to look at suspect lineups, even if the victim has not quite yet been discharged from the hospital or clinic treating the victim's injuries.

Traversing the major streets of major Russian cities can sometimes be a challenge in and of itself. Partly because of the fatalism endemic in Russian societies, Russians tend to drive quite recklessly and only loosely obey traffic signals (except when under the watchful eye of the Russian traffic police). Subsequently, crossing a busy street at a crosswalk (even when the pedestrian lights are green) can be quite riskly, often tantamount to playing a game of Russian roulette. Occasionally, a pedestrian may find him or herself stranded in the middle of the street, with busy traffic whizzing past him/her at unsafe velocities. Furthermore, traffic and pedestrian lights sometimes go out without warning, making street crossings even more dangerous; only with the relative safety of a large crowd (which is quite frequently the case during the summer months) does it become relatively safe to cross under such situations.

[edit] Visas and Entry Requirements

Russian visa requirements are complicated, governed by many regulations, and are strictly enforced.The requirements and fees are based on reciprocity with other contries, although in some cases it is less strict. For example you can file application by mail and your visa will be mailed to you, instead of appearing in person at the consulate as many ather countries require from Russians. Depending on the prospective visitor's originating country, obtaining a Russia tourist visa entails filling out a multi-page application form that asks detailed questions about the prospective visitor's background and motivations for visiting Russia. Prospective tourist visitors are often required to have an invitation or sponsoring organization (such as a tour company based in Russia). Visa and registration fees are also quite expensive compared to most other countries, and may increase even more if penalties are charged by the frequently corrupt Militsiya.

Once a Russian entry visa is obtained, it will specify the exact permissible dates during which the visitor is allowed in the country. Overstaying a Russian visa entails severe penalties, indefinite detention in the country, and a disallowal of the visitor to stay in any hotel, boarding house, or any other sort of accommodation.

[edit] The Migration Card

Upon arriving in Russia, foreigners are required to complete a migration card, which is used by Russian authorities to track the movements of the foreigners in the country. In the past year, this migration card (which used to be written in both Russian cyrillic and English) has since been changed to contain only the Russian (cyrillic letters), making it more difficult for foreigners to complete properly. However, this card must be completed before foreigners are allowed to enter immigration at the point of entry.

The migration card has two parts that have to be filled identically. The top part (part A) is taken by the immigration officials at immigration, while the bottom part (part B) is usually stamped or sealed on the front side by the immigration officer, who then hands it back to the visitor. The stamp on the front side of the migration card must accompany every crossing of the border of the Russian Federation. This part of the migration card is usually kept with the visitor's passport and is often required to be returned upon the visitor's departure from Russia. Unfortunately, Russian authorities at the crossing point are often corrupt and frequently fail to stamp or return the migration card to the foreigner (usually in purpose to extort money), so it is essential for visitors to ensure that the migration card is returned to them at the entry point with the proper stamp.

[edit] Registration whilst in Russia

Russian law and regulations in this area are often contradictory and often pose problems for foreign tourists in Russia. In general, all foreign citizens arriving into Russia for longer than 3 working days must be registered with the authorities within 3 working days of their arrival to their final destination. However, according to another Russian law, foreigners should register only if they plan to stay in one place for more than 3 days. Frequently, such contradictions cause considerable confusion among foreign tourists and is often used deliberately by Russian authorities to enact punative measures on the foreign tourists (usually requiring a monetary bribe to solve the problem). Problems related to registration occur frequently in Moscow and at the Moscow International Airport; foreign tourists entering Russia via Moscow are usually not allowed to book hotel accommodations without having completed proper registration.

For foreigners staying at a hotel, the hotel will usually ask for their passport, visa and migration card upon check-in, in order to register them with the authorities. The passport is sometimes returned the next morning, though more frequently the hotel will keep foreigner passports in the hotel safe. However, according to Russian law foreigners are not allowed to go anywhere without their passports, presenting a Catch-22 situation that is particularly troublesome given the Russian police's tendency to target and detain foreigners under the pretense of checking their papers. The usual situation, one which usually (but not always) works with the Russian police (Militsiya) is to present them with the hotel key card (as proof of accommodation and of the fact that the hotel is holding the foreigner's passport) and to say that they are visiting tourists. However, Militsiya intent in getting money from foreign tourists may still require a bribe before releasing them from detention.

Occasionally, the hotel might not ask the foreigner tourist for his/her passport, in which case the foreigner should request the hotel to register the foreigner with the authorities. If this doesn't happen, the foreigner is then required to go directly to the local immigration authorities or the Russian police for registration.

Evidence of proper registration is shown in the presence of a rectangular stamp/seal, with a period of validity, a date of registration, a registration number, the name of registering authority, and the signature of executing officer, located on the back side of the migration card.

[edit] Exiting Russia

Russia requires a separate exit visa in order for foreigners to be permitted to leave the country. This is normally issued along with the entry visa. However, under emergency situations (such as a medical emergency) where the foreigner needs to stay in the country longer, it becomes necessary for the foreigner to apply for an emergency visa extension (usually done with the assistance of the foreigner's consulate). The foreigner is then required to physically go to the nearest point of entry (e.g. airport or border point) to have the visa added to his/her passport. The exit visa is usually granted upon the foreigner's departure under these circumstances.

Russia customs were formerly very strict -- all items of potentially significant value (e.g. jewelry, electronics) and all currency had to be declared, with proofs of purchases and other proper documentation accompanying those items; some earlier visitors to Russia reported the process as being as odious as filling out one's annual income tax forms. More recently, customs regulations have become more relaxed, though Russian rubles (which formerly could not be exported at all) can be exported at limited amounts (indexed to the minimum wage standards for Russia). Furthermore, foreigners exporting a laptop computer that they had brought in earlier into the country may be required to subject their computer (and any or all computer media, such as DVD-ROMs, CD-ROMs, flash memory cards, etc.) to a software scan or search, before exiting the country.


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