Alluring, yet mysterious, Russia has started gaining ground as an important destination for Indian leisure and business travellers.
Indian tourists are impressed by sparkling Moscow and elegant St Petersburg. Source: ITAR-TASS
Known for its beautiful architecture and warm-hearted people on the one hand, freezing cold and mafia shoot-outs on the other, the impressions about Russia are slowly changing in India. As Southeast Asia and the Middle East became a routine and Western Europe seems far and expensive, Indian tourists may look at Russia as a fanciful mixture of European and Asian cultures and a considerably cheap way of spending a holiday.
Official statistics of the Russian tourism ministry show that in the first 9 months of 2012 the number of Indian tourists coming to Russia doubled from the same period the previous year. “From 2007 to 2011 the number of Indians visiting Moscow remained constant, about 35 000 each year. In 2012 it grew to 47,500. India is ranked 16 in the list of countries whose citizens are visiting Russia,” says Olesia Aliferenko, from the International Department of the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism.
Russian Intourist, well-known as the only official inbound travel agency since Soviet times, today has a good presence in India through its partner network. “We have several partners in India, most of them located in Delhi and Mumbai. Today most Indian tourists come to Russia though us and our partners,” says Tatiana Oleinikova, manager of the China, India and Asia Department of Intourist.
Privatised in 1992, Intourist is owned by JSFC Sistema, the oil and telecom giant, which is represented with its MTS brand in India, and the Moscow city government. In July 2011, Intourist and the Thomas Cook Group established a joint venture, comprising the tour-operating and retail business of Intourist. Thomas Cook acquired a 50.1 percent stake in the authorised capital of the venture, which will focus on expanding the tour operating business in Russia and other CIS countries.
Thomas Cook, Cox & Kings and other large operators in India work closely with Indian partners of Intourist as the latter has a better experience and understanding of Russia. “We often work with large operators acting either as a supplier because of our connections in Russia or as their consultant,” says Manish Singhal, Director of Dimaz Group, one of Intourist’s partners.
Searching for Indian delicacies
Olesia Aliferenko from Russia’s Federal Agency for Tourism believes that the number of Indian tourists coming to Russia will continue to grow despite some constraints like visa issues, lack of information about Russia accessible for Indians and stereotypical ideas that Russia is not a safe place. Aleksey Mzareulov, Deputy Consul General of the Russian Consulate in Mumbai, agrees that some problems exist, but visa problems and “mafia phobia” are not among them. “We have not yet developed a taste for Indian food, it becomes a real problem for Indian guests,” says Mzareulov.
There are several Indian restaurants in Moscow (Maharaja, Aromass, Hajurao, Jagannath, Aroma Moscow, Darbar, Devi café) and in St-Petersburg (Tandoori nights, Cardamon, Rada&Co, Tandoor, Troitsky Most, Frida). However, most of them don’t cater to large groups, and the prices for Indian food in Russia are as much as they would be for French or Japanese food in India, industry experts say.
“We tried to arrange a 3-day visit to Moscow or St. Petersburg for our partners, we requested several tour operators in Russia for quotations, but it seems that they are stuck with the food issue as our group would have not only vegetarians and non-vegetarians, but Jains too. We were told that even those restaurants available won’t be able to serve a group of 80 people at once, while our own cook will be a problem because of some medical certificates and other paperwork,” says the marketing manager of Mumbai-based software company.
Manish Singhal of Dimaz who used to study and live in Russia uses his old connections to solve such issues. “All Indian restaurants in Russia are owned by our good friends…we all studied together. So for us arranging Indian food is not a big deal. If we consider big groups, we can take our cooks from India. All the arrangements can be done.”
Food issues do not make bringing large groups to Russia impossible, tour operators insist. Several large Indian corporations like Asian paints, Hero MotoCorp and Axis bank have already tried the taste of India in Russia.
In 2012, Hero MotoCorp organised its Conference in St. Petersburg inviting over 125 top component suppliers from India, China, Thailand, Japan and Europe. The company rented the famous Konstantinovsky palace in St.Petersburg. “They spent over $3 million in Russia just in 3 days,” says Prashant Chaudhary, Managing Director of Salvia Travels, another partner of Intourist.
He says Russia with its advanced technology and facilities, warm hospitality, personalised services coupled with immense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage has become a good alternative for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) tourism. And food is not a problem anymore, as long as customer can pay.
“For Asian paints we had taken 16 cooks from India. As the group was very big, about 1200 people, which came in batches, one after another, the cooks stayed with us for more than a month. Apart from making arrangements in hotel kitchens and restaurants, we build a back-up kitchen that worked like a catering service,” Chaudhary says. “We carried about 500-600 kg of food, spices, dal and other things, with each of the groups. We even took mango!”
Manish Singhal also believes in developing Russia as MICE destination. Dimaz Group is now approaching corporates offering them to take a look at Russia instead of common Dubai, Thailand or Malaysia. “There are many Indians who have visited Europe, US, Asia, but Russia is something completely new. If the Russian language was a barrier earlier, today it is not. Everywhere in Russia, in the airport and hotels, people will speak English,” Singhal says.
New places, old problems
Moscow and St Petersburg remain the main destinations for Indians for many reasons though Russia, being one of the largest counties in the world, has many wonderful places to visit. During the OTM exhibition recently held in Mumbai, the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism along with World Without Borders, an association formed by leading Russian inbound tour operators, tried to promote Sochi, the Black Sea resort and home of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Sochi is not as cold as in other parts of Russia, at the same time you can do various activities from winter sport, skiing and snowboarding to sea beach activities. It can become a great destination for Indian tourists,” Yevgeny Kudelya, Minister of Resorts and Tourism, Krasnodar Region told RIR.
During next year’s OTM, Russian Federal Agency for Tourism is planning to promote new destinations such as Russian Golden Ring that features unique monuments of Russian architecture of the 12th–18th centuries, Altai, in Siberia, known for its rare beauty, unique ecology, geology and culture mix. The Trans-Siberian journey that begins in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok and the Russian Far East, would be another attractive destination. Indian tourists may even try to take the Trans-Mongolian Railway that ends in Beijing.
Coming down to earth, the food issue is there again, unless someone wants to take an Indian cook for a 7-day train journey. “We were trying to explore places around Moscow, including the famous Russian Gold Ring, but food and language problems are there. If in Moscow and St-Petersburg we can manage the food, in small towns it is almost impossible,” says Tatiana Oleinikova from Intourist.
Prashant Chaudhary agrees: “In case of Indian tourists you always depend on meals. We would love to try tour to Siberia, Baikal, Golden Ring, but I don’t see that possible.”
Not only food, in practice Indian tourists are more impressed by sparkling Moscow and St Petersburg with European architecture, developed infrastructure and nightlife than the countryside with medieval kremlins, orthodox cathedrals, churches and monasteries of the Russian Gold Ring. That is a matter of taste, too.
February 16, 2013 Alexandra Katz, specially for RIR