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Tourists undeterred by war  Aug 28, 2008

Russia has been thrust into the spotlight of the world media due to the conflict in South Ossetia and its involvement has been widely condemned in some quarters. However, despite the negative publicity there appears to be no decline in the number of tourists and business travellers coming to Russia.

American President George Bush declared that the conflict has "substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world," on August 11. However, travel companies don't believe that this will affect their business.

"We do not anticipate any major reduction in the number of western tourists to Russia due to the events in Georgia. Similarly, the troubles in Chechnya did not seem to have much impact on travel to the country," said Steven Penney, Chairman of ASLA travel group, a tour wholesaler which specializes in travel to Russia.

However, there has been a general downturn in the number of tourists coming to Moscow, mainly due to costs.

"The largest factors impacting on travel to Russia are factors of the cost and ease of obtaining visas, the cost of hotels and levels of service," claimed Penney.

Moscow has been named the most expensive city in the world for three years running and this is particularly true for hotels. There has been a large increase in the price of hotel rooms in the last two years, due to a shortage of supply. However, in the last 18 months new hotels have been opening and growth in supply is beginning to outpace demand, which will lead to prices declining.

The number of business travellers continues to grow, enticed by the booming economy, although this is beginning to level off, according to Penney. Many businessmen are shortening their trips to Moscow but lengthening stays in St. Petersburg due to the price disparity between the cities.

The price of visas has also in­creased substantially in the last couple of years, rising from £30 ($55) to £45 ($82) for UK citizens and from $100 to $131 for US citizens. Bureaucracy for visitors still remains one of the major impediments to the tourism industry in Russia but this has not been affected by the conflict.

"It is too early to assume, but I doubt it (the conflict) will stop ordinary tourists and businessmen coming to Russia because Russia has not created any restrictions for foreign nationals after the recent events," said Eugene Kharisov, the director of the Russian offices of the travel firm Real Russia.

Moreover, it remains unlikely that travellers will be put off by the conflict with Georgia because both Moscow and St. Petersburg are so far from the disputed area. "It is quiet and peaceful here," added Kharisov.

Russia has always been able to attract visitors with its sights, history and culture and although the rhetoric has been stepped up since the conflict began, many visitors came when relations were even tenser.

"In fact, most travellers to Russia travelled in the days of the Soviet Union, when relations with Western Europe were worse than they are today," said Penney.

Tourists undeterred by war

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