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Active Tourism Offers The Ability to View Russia From A New Angle

If you ask a glamorous suntanned lady with a big suitcase returning to Sheremetyevo airport from Sharm-el-Sheikh and a bearded guy in dirty hiking boots sitting next to an enormous backpack outside the Kursk train station whether they consider themselves tourists, there is a high probability that both would answer in the affirmative. But there is an equally reasonable chance that the two would have different ideas about the concept which, in a broader sense, represents diverse lifestyles. For many of its adherents in Russia, self-organized tourism is a sort of a lifestyle and a set of values, which include openness to adventures, self-reliance, love of nature and little need for comfortable conditions during travel. These ideas unite all kinds of active travelers, from backpackers to mountain climbers.

“You are a master of your time and plans, you can change a route, stay longer in a place you like, or leave a place you don’t like,” said Maria, 24, whose active tourism experience started during her high school years. “Besides the freedom to travel where you want and self-reliance, you have a great opportunity to better know the places you go,” added Victoria, 28. “Before the trip, you study maps thoroughly, search for weather stats and cultural info on the region. And you will remember all these things much better than stuff you hear from official guides.”

Alexei, 25, who went to his first hike or pokhod when studying at Moscow State University, cited another important aspect of active tourism: “Often it’s much cheaper than official tours.”

Most travelers in their 20s and 30s began to embark upon this kind of tourism during high school or college, although some followed in the steps of their parents, who had the opportunity to travel across the former USSR, from the Kola Peninsula to the Caucasus, from Karelia to the Far East during the “golden age” of Soviet tourism in the 1960s. When young people in the West were embracing leftist ideas and hippie philosophy, their peers in the USSR expressed their freedom by organizing their own travel through the immense space of their homeland. The young intellectuals of the post-war generation chose to spend their holidays traveling with handmade backpacks and tents through the nation’s diverse regions “in search of mist and taiga scent,” in the words of a well-known traveling song. Those who took part in active tourism were mostly part of the “technical intelligentsia”: young engineers, scientists and students. They were driven by the romantic ideal of free travel and a desire to test their own limits. While most Soviet citizens were limited in their ability to travel abroad, the vast spaces of their own country were mostly open for tourism, which allowed for the development of infrastructure and official regulations for active tourism.

Mass construction of tourist centers and alpine camps in the Crimea, Altai, Karelia, the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains started in the 1930s. Around the same time, the first professional mountain guides were trained with the help of German professionals. After World War II, the old facilities were restored and new ones built. A system of regional, municipal, and departmental tourist clubs along with similar structures in leading universities and high schools, made active travel available for almost everyone interested. Diverse hiking, trekking, kayaking, rafting, cycling, skiing and combined trails were explored and evaluated according to their complexity on a standardized scale from 1 to 6. Active tourism also became a national sport, leading to the awarding of the “master of sports” title and national championships for sport tourism, a tradition that continues today.

At the same time, more people became involved in self-organized active travel. “We had difficulty getting tourist gear and necessary provisions,” said Arkady Polyakov, an associate professor at one of Moscow’s universities and an experienced amateur tourist. “For example, you could get canned food or buckwheat needed during long hikes only in the special food distribution packages that people received at work on the great Soviet holidays. Detailed maps were not publicly available, so people usually used tracing-paper copies with route descriptions that could be found in municipal tourist clubs. Experienced tourists could sew their gear from improvised materials. For example, I used parachutes or printing ribbons for large computers to sew tents, and my friend made his first kayak from a balloon shell.”

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the country entered the reforms of perestroika, active tourism faced a decline in popularity. Tourist organizations lost state support, and many tourist centers were privatized, resulting in a major lack of funding. As a result, the number of clubs has fallen to 300 from the 700 registered in 1989, and a huge number of those remaining are operated by volunteers, añcording to the website of the Russian Union of Sports Tourism. The reforms of the 1990s also lifted many of the restrictions on traveling abroad, and many of those Russians who could afford to travel signed up for cheap commercial tours to Turkey or Egypt.

Today the interest in active travel in Russia is gaining force again. Tourist websites are full of photos from recent hikes and trips, along with an array of messages on bulletin boards. In part, self-organized tourism owes its increasing popularity to the rather modest expenses required for amateur hikes compared with commercial tours.

But active travelers are not only students or pensioners. Representatives of the middle class, who have succeeded in the difficult economic transition of the past 15 years, are often people who are self-reliant and prefer an active lifestyle. Another significant reason is that life in Russia’s big cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, is becoming increasingly stressful, and more and more city-dwellers are looking for ways to escape.

“During hikes and treks you feel that you are alive, that your life is not passing by in everyday difficulties. You see your own capabilities and have the opportunity to see new places and meet new people,” said Veronika, 32, a marketing analyst from Moscow. Although she hopes to travel to a variety of places, including Kamchatka and Sakhalin, on weekends Veronika often hikes in the forests surrounding Moscow with a mixed company of Russians and expats, ranging in age from 25 to 70. They belong to an informal community called “Hikers, Walkers and Nature Lovers.” The group’s website invites everyone to join their day-long forest walks, covering 20-30 kilometers.

The most popular routes for active and eco-tourism are accessible for both self-organized adventurers and those who prefer to buy tours. “We try to make the life of hikers easier, so the tents and other gear are usually transported by cars or horses,” said Boris Vislogusov, head of an agency that organizes active tours through the Caucasus and southern Russia. “One of our most popular tours is the well-known Thirty route in the Krasnodar region, where it is possible to hike through six different climatic zones. There are horseback versions of our mountain routes, but these are not for beginners,” he said.

The official website of Russia’s Federal Agency for Tourism lists eco-tourism and active travel among the premier types of tourism available in Russia. It also notes that five environmental objects in Russia are part of UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites: the virginal forests of Komi, Lake Baikal, the volcanoes of Kamchatka, the mountains of Altai and the Western Caucasus. The site also recommends the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East as regions that offer the best opportunities for active tourism. But wherever tourists choose to go - to the fantastic Altai mountains, the grand peaks of the Caucasus, the volcanoes of Kamchatka or the Yakutian tundra - they are guaranteed to have an unforgettable trip.

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