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New Russian Vacation Spot: Dacha Retreat on Wheels

Dealers are hoping that motor homes will be the next big thing in leisure and will change how and where the people spend their holidays.

April 30, 2006|Erika Niedowski | Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW — A dacha -- the Russian country house, the quintessential weekend escape -- can be as modest as a wooden shack without heat or running water, or as lavish as a villa with meticulously landscaped grounds.

Introducing another kind of country house: a dacha on wheels.

The so-called Autodacha -- a camper made in neighboring Belarus that sleeps five and can deliver you far beyond the property line of your country estate -- is rolling through the Russian countryside this spring, alongside larger, more luxurious motor homes that dealers hope will become the next big thing in Russian leisure.

Like the Siberian wilderness, the motor home market here is largely uncharted territory.

Even its most enthusiastic promoters acknowledge that there are sound reasons why it might not grow quickly, including the poor condition of Russian roads and the utter lack of camping facilities.

Still, a growing number of dealers are renting and selling campers in hopes that they will change how and where Russians vacation.

In addition to the small fleet of Autodachas, the brand of a small Russian-owned company of the same name, motor homes manufactured in Germany are for sale at four Moscow dealerships and in three other Russian cities.

"There's a big future for this kind of travel for people like us," said Sergei Valuyev, a 35-year-old Muscovite who recently returned with four friends from a road trip in an Autodacha through Ukraine and Moldova to a music festival in Bulgaria. "This is preferable to other alternatives if you want to feel comfortable."

Outside Russia's major cities, the "alternatives" often include substandard hotels, if a hotel can be found, or pitching a tent in the woods or at a crude campsite that might lack potable water.

Valuyev and his friends had intended to travel by car -- it broke down at the last minute -- and to camp along the way. But the motor home was decidedly more convenient, he said, enabling them to prepare meals of ragout and rice on the small gas stove and, best of all, bathe, even if the shower stall was small.

Russians typically receive at least four weeks of vacation a year in addition to half a dozen other national holidays. The most popular summer destination, by far, is the dacha. About a quarter of Russians have a cottage equipped for use in the warmer months, about the same percentage as those who have a car to get them there.

A dacha is not just a place of repose away from the noise and grime of cities. During Soviet times, the dacha came to represent a prized space of one's own. Given small plots of land by the state, Russians freely tended their fruit and vegetable gardens and did so with purpose -- to bring food to their tables. Although many newer, elaborate dachas are now a status symbol for the well-to-do, most owners still go to their country homes to tend their gardens.

Russians also have begun turning to Western-style vacations. More Russians are traveling abroad -- 6.7 million in 2005, the government reports -- and more are beginning to explore sights at home, from the northern fishing holes of Karelia near the Finnish border to the warm sunshine of the Black Sea region in the south.

Such domestic travelers are potential users of motor homes.

"Russians, even though they like to go abroad, they get tired of Europe and other places," said Autodacha's founder, Igor Kamarov, who hopes that demand this spring and summer will allow him to expand his fleet of campers for rent. "They are becoming more interested in traveling around Russia."

The Autodacha rents for about $100 a day, a considerable sum here. Zakir Mursakulov, general director of Caravan Center, a Moscow-based dealership of German-made Hymer campers, said the Camp Classic model, which sleeps six, costs about $180 a day. Depending on interior decoration and options, which can include GPS and Internet service, the purchase price for the same model is $50,000 to $75,000. Mursakulov said he had sold five campers since December.

The beauty of the camper, of course, is that while other people are fighting traffic to get to their dachas, you're already in yours.

"The main factor of the appeal is curiosity," said Dmitry Sorogin, editor of the magazine Put i Voditel, or Route and Driver. "For quite awhile, people have had only a vague idea of their own country."

But improvements in Russia's infrastructure haven't kept pace. A 1999 survey of Russia's roads published by the U.S. State Department and Department of Commerce concluded that 43% did not meet basic safety standards because of cracks, potholes, inadequate signs and lighting. Few if any roadside services were available. In 2004, an official at Russia's Transportation Ministry said the lack of a modern highway system cost the national economy about 3% a year.

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