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Dramatic Drop in Tourism to Russia : Food shortages, rising crime and regional conflicts are among factors cited. Insiders predict a bleak summer.

June 28, 1992|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Simon is a member of The Times' Moscow bureau

MOSCOW — Just when Russia's faltering economy most desperately needs to attract hard currency, the tourism industry here has slumped dramatically.

In the past three years, the number of Western visitors has dropped 30% and those from Eastern Europe by 80%, according to Vladimir Braginsky, a senior official at Intourist Travel Co.

Overall, the number of tourists fell from 2.75 million in 1989 to 2.3 million in 1990, the last year for which such statistics are available. And travel agents report that this summer shapes up to be the worst season yet.

News accounts of food shortages, rising crime rates and bloody battles on the fringes of the former Soviet empire have apparently scared away many prospective tourists.

"For once, your propaganda is better than ours," said Raisa Shafranova, an administrator at the Central House of Tourists, an inexpensive hotel. "The Western media broadcasts too many negative stories about life here, so people are afraid to come."

Looking down the carpeted aisle of his luxurious tour bus, overcrowded last summer and just half-full now, Intourist driver Nikolai Fyodorov could only agree. "They actually send us home sometimes because there's no work," said Fyodorov, 50, who has driven tour buses for 17 years. "That's never happened before. Usually in the summer we're constantly busy. This situation now is bad for us, and it's bad for our country."

Recent figures about tourism are unavailable, as the disintegration of the Soviet Union has thrown statistics gatherers into disarray. But every indication points to a marked decrease in tourism--and in the flow of hard currency that usually accompanies foreign visitors.

Hotel managers say the customary summer crowd has thinned. Drivers describe tour groups of only six people on buses designed to hold 40. And visitors marvel at the empty museums and short lines.

In the first five months of 1992, the American Express Travel Service booked 220 fewer trips to Russia than in the same period last year, said Michael Shneyderman, a manager in the Moscow office.

And Thompson Holidays, one of the few Western travel agencies with an office in Moscow, has booked only 2,000 individual tours to Russia so far this year, down from 3,500 in 1991 and 5,500 in 1990, said Marysia Rachowski, Moscow representative for the London-based company.

"As the country has become more open, it's less interesting to people," Rachowski said, adding that Eastern European capitals, especially Prague and Budapest, are the newest fashionably exotic vacation spots.

Typically, tourists in Russia spend $2 on souvenirs and services for every $1 they spend on transportation, lodging and food, according to an Intourist survey taken in the late 1980s.

Thus, the drop in tourism has rippled through the Russian economy, hitting a dozen different industries. Souvenir vendors, tour guides and ticket scalpers who prey on tourists say their sales have fallen by up to 50% this summer.

"There used to be many, many more foreigners," said Oleg Broxorov, 23, who sells tickets to the popular Old Circus for dollars. "Also, the tourists used to be richer and more prosperous," he complained.

Business travel has also been slow this spring and summer, said Stephan Stoss, a manager at the upscale Olympic Penta Hotel. In the fall, the Penta was 90%-100% full; the occupancy rate now is down to 75%, he said. "The enthusiasm isn't very great now, and everyone's much more cautious and conservative," Stoss said.

Those travelers who do make it to Moscow send mixed messages to would-be tourists back home.

"We didn't know what the situation would be like, so we brought suitcases full of food," Tracie Taylor, of Sand Spring, Okla., said as she waited outside the Armory Museum in the Kremlin. "We haven't needed any of it; the hotels have fed us all we could eat and more."

But Roger Johnston, 42, an American who now works in the Netherlands, said Moscow life was worse than he had expected. "We had reservations before we came about what the food and accommodations would be like, and we still do," Johnston said.

Rolling her eyes in disgust, his wife, Afton, added, "The food and hotels are the pits--they're so primitive. There's no soap, no shower curtain, no fresh towels."

As they headed off to visit Red Square and Lenin's Mausoleum, Roger Johnston commented: "They need some American-style capitalism real bad."

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