AFP IRKUTSK, Russia - The tourists who flock each summer to admire the surreal beauty of Lake
Baikal, the world's deepest lake, are forced to cope with primitive
amenities in the absence of the kind of infrastructure needed for civilized
"Paradoxically, it's the foreign tourists who tend to come to Baikal," said
Igor Kovalenko, head of the Sputnik travel agency in the Irkutsk region.
Some 50,000 foreign tourists come to Baikal every year, paying some $1,000
to stay there for a week a price much too steep for many Russians who
prefer to spend their vacations in Turkey.
But Germans, Americans, Swiss, Belgians and Dutchmen are irresistibly drawn
to this mysterious and ever-changing lake, virtually off-limits to foreign
tourists during Soviet times.
For many, Baikal is not the final destination but a staging post on their
way to Mongolia or China.
This year's outbreak of atypical pneumonia, or SARS, in China predictably
cut down the number of foreign visitors, much to the regret of local tourism
But the lack of infrastructure is by far the biggest obstacle to the
development of the tourist industry, Kovalenko said.
The overpriced hotels are often housed in gray, rundown buildings that have
not seen a lick of paint since the Soviet era. There are too few restaurants
and too little local will to do justice to traditional cuisine, delicious as
Three nature reserves and three national parks border the lake, and "there
are many bureaucratic obstacles to overcome in order to rent land and build
tourist bases," said Ruslan Popov of the base nestled on Olkhon Island in
Many of the more beautiful sites are nearly impossible to see as they are
inaccessible by road and can only be approached by boat.
However, ecologists and scientists have warned against developing tourism in
the region without due precautions.
"In Sandy Bay, where there are lots of tourists, some 15 kinds of endemic
plants which exist nowhere else have now disappeared," lamented Elena
Grosheva, director of the local toxicology institute, warning of a "negative
human impact" on the lake's fragile environment.
"Baikal is a place where you meet nature. If one were to build huge hotels
here it would lose its charm," said Nikita Bencharov, who accommodates some
50 tourists in a little village on Olkhon Island.
But local authorities believe that unregulated camping causes much more
damage to nature than organized tourism ever could.
According to Vladimir Melnikov, director of the Zabaikalsky national park on
the lake's southern shore, it is campers "who leave all their garbage
behind" and who cause the biggest problems.
However, eco-tourists who come "not only to admire the natural beauty but
also to help eliminate the waste left by other tourists" would be welcome,
Tour operators and officials like Kovalenko are not opposed to
"infrastructure that would not negatively impact Baikal's environment."
For Kovalenko, the development of ecological tourism would help us to
preserve the lake environment and create jobs for the region's residents.
"But for this we would need foreign investment and government aid," he said.