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26 Aug, 2010 13:10

Kamchatkas ecotourism strives for investment

Kamchatka has the highest prices for gas, fuel and food in Russia. Everything needs to be shipped in. Located in the far north east of Russia, the region feels as remote as anywhere on Earth.

Opportunities for small business are further complicated by the extreme climate of a land bedeviled by earthquakes and typhoons. But it is just this quality of untamed wilderness that makes Kamchatka a destination for adventurous tourists – and the money they bring.

Although larger than California, the peninsula has only 300 kilometers of paved roads.
Traveling to most parts of Kamchatka is almost impossible for anyone who does not have access to an Mi-8 helicopter, Galina Volgina, head of department, Kamchatsky ecotourism society, points out.

“Ecotourism is purely small business, it's 100% self-reliant risk and it provides employment for the population. The main problem is lack of infrastructure. We need small aviation and helicopters in order to take tours around Kamchatka, but it costs a lot and regulations are tough for the operations of helicopters and small aviation”  Volgina insists.

Kamchatka is home to many natural wonders, including 26 active volcanoes, half the world's population of Steller's sea eagles, and the largest population of brown bears on Earth. But in order to see it all, one needs to flee the city by boat or helicopter.

The average price for an hour’s rental of a helicopter starts at $3,500, seriously adding to the price of tours. But operators say the number of tourists is still higher than the number of available helicopters.

Over 20,000 nature-lovers come to Kamchatka annually. Most arrive on cruise ships, spending just a few days and seeing only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the peninsula's attractions.

Just one third of travelers come as real adventurers. Tourists from Japan and the US are ready to pay $200 a day to discover nature's hidden treasures.

But even with the high prices, the tour operators find it difficult to make a profit, not to mention the high direct expenditures on infrastructure.

“The tourism industry in Kamchatka is worth $3 million. However, most of that is taken up by costs – hotels, helicopters, off-road jeeps and special transportation,” says Volgina.

Kamchatka is unlikely ever to become a mass holiday destination. But the locals believe there is room for specialist ecotourism to grow. They want the government to invest more seriously in the peninsula's infrastructure to improve access, while preserving its unique natural heritage.