Kamchatka needs growing passenger traffic throughout the season
Elena Stratonova, head of Kamchatka Agency for Tourism and External Relations, shares her views on the infrastructure, mass tourism and support offered to the tourism business.
– Comparatively recently, Kamchatka was a non-tourist region, a territory for the military. What mark has that left on the industry?
– Indeed, historically Kamchatka was a closed territory for a long time. The region was first opened up to the world in the 1990s. The tourist inflow then was small even though cruise liners docked there. Kamchatka was primarily used as a fish-industry destination hence the architectural features: Petropavlovsk-
Kamchatsky is older than Vladivostok, but it has almost no beautiful buildings since it was build as a base camp. This is one of the problems that the territory's government is currently attempting to solve. The climate, terrain, and seismic conditions all play their role. The wind load is intense here since the territory is near the sea. As a result, some of the city's areas look rather unattractive.
– What can be done?
– At present, city and territory authorities are focussing their efforts on organising rest areas, making the embankment more attractive, and installing new green areas and parks. All this is done to offer the city's residents and tourists a place to spend time.
– Spending time in the city is also determined by the availability of hotels, isn't it?
– Many of the city's hotels were built during the Soviet period. This includes the largest ones – Avacha, Petropavlovsk, and Geyser. At present they are undergoing intensive reconstruction. Moreover, new hotel complexes are being built in the territory. However, there are several constraining factors that influence the infrastructure in general. Kamchatka is in the highest demand during the peak tourist season: from July to September. During the spring months, the region is particularly popular among heli-skiing fans. We are currently attempting to extend the limits of the season. So far, it has been possible to bring the start forward to June and its end to October.
– Is the accommodation capacity growing proportionally?
We have assessed major investment projects in the tourism sphere related to the construction of accommodation. In the next three years, the number of available rooms will grow by one third: 775 new rooms of various categories will be put onto the market. This is a very good sign. To compare, at present there are only 2,200 hotel rooms in Kamchatka. In the past few months alone, three new hotels opened in the city. They are aimed at various tourists and include an ultra-modern host-hotel with hand-painted rooms for travellers who want to save on accommodation without losing out on quality. The entire stock of rooms is modern with high-quality service. Last season, they worked very well.
– What is the extended limits of the Kamchatka season attributed to?
– There are quite a lot of events. There is a week of culture and tourism with a unique dancing marathon, and a festival of native peoples. Visitors are also attracted by the unique kinds of tourism, for example, eco-tourism with access to natural parks, territorial and federal wildlife sanctuaries, and reserves. Naturally, the general growth of the tourist inflow, which is currently more or less spread evenly throughout the season, also plays a role. Our main goal is to bring winter into play. During this period, there are also plenty of events: they include an immense number of breeding kennels for dog-sled trips, visits to the bottom of a volcano, skiing tours, mountain skiing, snowmobile journeys, as well as the traditional Kamchatka dog-rig race, Beringia. Moreover, Kamchatka offers the unique opportunity to ski down the slope of an active volcano and then dive into a hot spring.
– Is the tourist inflow growing?
– Last year, Kamchatka was visited by about 200,000 people, including Russian tourists. There were about 15,000 foreign tourists. 6,500 of them arrived in Kamchatka on cruise liners. This year, large capacity vessels are entering our port. Last year, we had 12 calls to the port, this year, even though the number of liners remained the same, the number of tourists on board increased to 13,500. Most cruise vessels are now serviced through the new Marine Passenger Terminal in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Berthing facilities have been reconstructed and the terminal now can now receive vessels up to 250 meters long.
– Please tell more about the reconstruction of another gateway to Kamchatka: the airport.
The scale of the construction will be rather large and the current terminal will undergo reconstruction. This will allow us to create more convenient conditions for servicing flights. The passenger flow in the airport last year came to 650,000 people. This year, it will increase. Expansion of the current terminal will mean we can expand the international sector in the upcoming season, and create a comfortable area for passenger arrivals and departures on domestic and foreign flights. The arrival and departure area will be expanded there, and a business-class hall will be set up. These works are scheduled to be completed by the beginning of the next tourist season. We have already commenced negotiations with companies that are engaged in the organisation of charter programmes in order to increase the volume of international freight. Right now, there is a flight to Anchorage, Alaska, and to Japan; these flights are inbound. Meanwhile, the flights to Vietnam, Thailand are mainly outbound. It is important for us to stimulate air travel to Kamchatka. It is clear we need to seek mechanisms that will stimulate carriers. It is important for us to support the growing tourist traffic, deliberately spread the load throughout the season so that investors have an incentive to build new hotels. Therefore, we have to ensure that they are in demand for the entire season.
– Very well, a mass influx of tourists start going to Kamchatka. First and foremost, they are interested in the infrastructure. What is its current status?
– As far as infrastructure is concerned, it will soon start growing. It is in part supported by the special tax regime introduced for the Russian Far East – the advanced development territory and the free port of Vladivostok regimes. Just last year, the scope of investments in tourism increased by half and came to almost 2.5 billion roubles. For many years, businesses have been investing small amounts in the development of tourist infrastructure. Now those volumes are growing. The advanced development territory and the free port of Vladivostok regimes have also had an effect. At present, 42 investors are implementing their tourism projects with a total investment amount of 6.5 billion roubles. In the near future, they will make it possible to create a convenient tourist infrastructure that both the city and other regions of Kamchatka currently lack.
– Cruise liners have been mentioned several times. At present, do they bring foreigners who come specifically to Kamchatka or to the Russian Far East in general?
– We are conducting negotiations our Far Eastern colleagues on the promotion of the Far Eastern cruise sector. Why is such coalition of interest? As a rule, tourists come to our port for a day. They buy tours from local tour operators. Some vessels come for a multi-day programme. For example, a group of tourists from Japan recently spent four days here. We are interested in having more tourists of that kind. However, the tourists themselves aim to visit several cities. This is a prospective route: Japan – the Republic of Korea – Vladivostok – Sakhalin – the Kuril Islands – Kamchatka. There is demand for this area and I hope that, thanks to our work, our Far Eastern ports will be soon receiving more cruise liners.
– Kamchatka generally collaborates a lot with other Russian Far East regions in order to develop tourism, doesn't it?
– I am always envious of our Vladivostok colleagues: as a Far Eastern hub, they have high levels of passenger traffic. Our Far Eastern partners and colleagues are currently assisting us in searching for a way to promote the route, the Eastern Ring of Russia. So far it has remained underdeveloped. Many tourists from Asian countries take transfer flights in Vladivostok – people might be interested in visiting Kamchatka as well. In our opinion, it is vital to improve the information support between constituent entities of Russia so that tour operators working in Primorye can find partners in Kamchatka, Sakhalin, etc., so that routes can be built, so that tourists can get an idea of how they can reach neighbouring entities and what they might do while there.
– Do other regions experience professional jealousy?
– I had expected them to. However, in fact I see interest from businesses, including those that operate on neighbouring territories. A lot of them are launching projects to develop domestic tourism with particular focus on the Far Eastern market. Such projects are ongoing in Sakhalin, in Primorye. Tour operators are interested in them because they ensure work related to outbound travel.
– How does the tour company market in Kamchatka feel in general, what are its dynamics? Is the range of services expanding?
– Kamchatka's tour services market is very peculiar: there are few major tour operators there and almost no consolidators in this sphere. We have about 70 tour operators who work in Kamchatka and about a hundred agents – a rather large number for such a territory. This is understandable since the companies are small. But they have been slowly growing, gaining new connections, partners, and putting together their tour packages. The peculiar features of the market in Kamchatka are such that our regional tour operators only sell tours around Kamchatka, put together tour packages for Russian residents without the trip to the peninsula. As a rule, tourists buy tickets on their own. This is connected with certain restrictions small companies face on the market.
– Does the presence of numerous minor players present any additional difficulties to service consumers?
– The costs cause sometimes certain difficulties for service consumers. At present, there is an interesting situation: Aeroflot has a flat rate of 25,000 roubles for tickets to Kamchatka in any season. Naturally, this makes the cost of the tour lower but the tickets must generally be purchased in advance. Now, the major tour operator, TUI, has set its sights on our market. It sells tour packages that regional operators help to put together. This gives us the opportunity to increase passenger traffic, which provides Kamchatka businesses with work.
– Does the industry have sufficient personnel?
– The most important thing for us is the general increase in quality of tourist services in Kamchatka. Our higher education institutions have few offers for professional education for specialised workers. Therefore, the Ministry of Culture of Russia has developed a draft law that presupposes mandatory certification of instructors/guides, tour guides and translators/guides. In our opinion, this will radically change the situation in the entire country. We have started preparing for this and in October we are launching a pilot project in Kamchatka of a specialised education system for tour guides at one of the institutions. Next year, we will develop a programme for translators and instructors/guides. It is a professional retraining system that involves theoretical and practical courses and an examination. Based on their results, trainees receives a state-issued diploma. Kamchatka's best tour guides were involved in developing the programme. The programme turned out to be very interesting and intense. It includes the basics of tourist activities, a large unit on the history of Kamchatka, its wild places; and a lot of attention is paid to the traditions and culture of native minorities of the Territory. Our goal is to raise the quality of the work of tour guides and make it interesting. The programme developed will help to significantly improve the situation. We have included resources in the budget; pursuant to the governor's instructions funds, have been allocated to training under the state programme. The cost of a 2.5-month professional retraining course will be just 5,000 roubles.
– WorldSkills is being run on approximately the same lines. Do you collaborate?
– They run in parallel. WorldSkills is an interesting area but a very different one. Hospitality issues matter to all people residing in the region. Therefore, as of next year, we hope to launch a special project that will promote interest in tourism. It will also be aimed at schoolchildren. People cannot be taught hospitality at the drop of a hat; it is a mentality generated over years.
– Are there any initiatives connected to attracting people to the industry who know the history of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in-depth and are prepared to volunteer to speak about it?
– The professional retraining system will provide professional education to people who already work in the tourism sphere and also attract people who are interested in such work. Later, they will be able to receive a licence to conducting guided tours. In the past few years, there has been a social tourism development program in operation in Kamchatka. We support the tour operators who lead tours around Kamchatka (including those that take in unique natural places) for notable inhabitants of Kamchatka: both children (winners of competitions, school contests) and adults (war veterans, pensioners). There is a volunteer movement aimed at working in the tourism sector. We have assembled a group of volunteers who actively cooperate with us. Also, the All-Russian Competition, Green Route, has been successful in Kamchatka. Both public and volunteer unions joined the effort accompanied by business companies gladly laying routes, clearing paths, and making environmentally-friendly paths both within natural parks and on the routes that suit their businesses.
– Will Kamchatka remain the territory of extreme tourism?
– Yes, Kamchatka is a territory of eco- and extreme tourism. We do offer tours around the city and stays in health resorts, but routes around Kamchatka are mostly connected with trips and hikes. This type of recreation requires great responsibility on the part of both the tourist and the tour operator. When a person chooses to go on a route of that kind, they must understand where they are going: how high the mountains are, what the terrain is like, what their training level must be, etc. There are currently cases across Russia where companies operating on the market invite people on extreme tours but take no responsibility for them or warn them of the possible danger. One example of this is the story of a tour group from Krasnoyarsk that had used a company that had been removed from the register of tour operators and had no right to provide services to tourists. Regardless, they invited people online from around Russia and took them on an extreme tour around Kamchatka. During one leg of the journey, a young woman froze to death on the way to the camp. It took place within a few hundred metres from the base camp of rescue services. They were too slow in seeking help and left the person alone on the route. In our opinion, the approach to safety needs to be changed. I am speaking primarily not of the companies operating legally that adhere to requirements, but of those who ignore the laws, and in fact perform illegal entrepreneurial activities and place people's lives in jeopardy.
– What can be done in this situation?
– Strict regulations are applied to tour operators – they take serious liability. However, there is no liability for private persons who do the same. These days, there is a real problem with underqualified personnel. Yet, the demand on the tourism services market is high so employers invariably lower their standards for employees. This has an impact on the image of tourism in the region. The adoption of the draft law by the Ministry of Culture on the mandatory certification of specialists working in the sector will increase the requirements on qualifications, and ensure that specialists conform to the requirements applied to tour guides, translators, etc. It will also introduce systemic responsibility for those who are engaged in such activities. This will change the situation a lot.
– Can any changes in the regulatory legal base be initiated from below?
– Changes need to be made in the list of laws on specific types of insurance. So far, tour operators are only obligated to insure their liability. In our opinion, life and health insurance must be provided to tourists on extreme tour routes. In many cases, the insurance must stipulate compensation of expenses for the search, rescue and, most importantly, evacuation of the victims. In Kamchatka, if you get in trouble away from the city, you call a helicopter. There is always the question of who has to pay for it, the state or the tour operator. We are creating a working group in the region on tourist safety. It will include representatives of legislative and executive power, and law-enforcement authorities. Together, we want to develop proposals for the amendment of federal laws that would allow us to radically change the situation concerning safety in tourism.
– What support measures are available to tour operators at the regional level?
– If conditions listed in the law on the advanced development territory and the free port of Vladivostok are met, any entrepreneur can declare their project and receive the necessary support. Moreover, we help the tourism business by promoting services. One of the support measures in effect in the territory is assistance in participating in large international exhibitions. We have the Kamchatka Tourism Industry Association, with which we maintain close partner relations. Jointly, we make a plan of exhibition activities for every year – we look at what interests our tour operators, what new markets are in most demand, and pay for the exhibition area for the business.
– Do you provide any incentives to local authorities to develop tourism?
– A subsidies programme for municipal bodies has been in place for several years now. They can come and submit a specific project, then receive money from the region's budget for the creation of tourist infrastructure. Several years ago a modern hotel was built on the Komandor Islands. This year, we are starting the reconstruction of the hotel in Palan, the administrative centre of the Koryaksky District. In remote areas, it is difficult to build even small hotel complexes. At present, a small hotel project in the Ust-Kamchatsky District is being considered by a business. As far as infrastructure development is concerned, we are attempting to create new routes, new sights, and attractions for tourists. The programme is not extensive but the governor has offered his support. I hope that next year we will continue to develop this. What's most important is that municipal bodies are interested.
– What other preferences can the tourism business in Kamchatka rely upon?
– It is important to allocate subsidies to businesses that are building environmentally-friendly tourist infrastructure – not only building hotel complexes but also creating paths and camping sites. Considering how vast the territory of Kamchatka is, there is a problem with the delivery of materials. We believe it necessary to support business. This year, we will attempt to implement a project for the creation of a sanitary zone and a recreation zone in the foothills of the Vilyuchinsky Volcano. Next year, we aim to develop a subsidies programme for Kamchatka businesses for the creation of infrastructure for eco-paths and routes. State support measures are required in this area. This includes at the federal level. This is what the president was talking about in the latest decrees. It is important that businesses enter these spheres.