While officials encourage tourism locals fear over-tourism in St Petersburg

Published on : Saturday, October 12, 2019

Marina Pogolsha points toward two scantily clad women gyrating in a new strip club across the road from her apartment building on Rubinstein Street in St. Petersburg’s historic centre. “That’s what the view from my living room window is now, welcome to hell,” she says.


Locals like Marina, who has lived on Rubinstein all her life, blame its unpleasant transformation from an elegant residential street to a noisy and garbage-strewn bar area on the authorities’ failure to regulate the consequences of a recent explosion in the number of tourists.


Many fear the worst is yet to come as the government aims to lure more foreign tourists to St. Petersburg. If the growth continues unchecked, experts say the city may soon end up like Prague and Barcelona — overrun by holidaymakers.


Thanks to a pilot programme launched earlier this month, tourists coming to St. Petersburg and the surrounding region from a list of 53 countries can now apply for free visas in a simplified online process. The programme is unique to the city, and tourists seeking to visit other Russian cities will still have to apply at a consulate and pay. Over 650 tourists arrived in the first weekend of the programme.


Soon, however, thousands more are expected to fly in on low cost European airlines like Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air — which announced plans this month to open new routes to St. Petersburg, following the news that the city’s Pulkovo Airport would receive “seventh freedom flights” under which foreign airlines don’t need to be registered in Russia to fly direct.


The government forecasts that an additional two million foreign tourists will come to the city each year from 2021 thanks to the new efforts, on top of the four million who visit now. The influx is expected to add up to 9 billion rubles ($138 million) to the city’s budget, which officials say will be earmarked toward long-overdue renovations of the city centre and tourism infrastructure.


Nana Gvichia, vice director of St. Petersburg’s committee for tourism, said that apart from economic benefits for the city, the tourism drive is part of a long-term government strategy to improve Russia’s appeal abroad.


Experts in the tourism industry, however, believe St. Petersburg lacks the infrastructure to host an additional two million tourists every year.


Last month, the Tourism Ministry considered allocating specific days to Chinese groups visiting the Tsarskoye Selo museum — which houses the fabled Amber Room — because of enormous lines.


“We simply can’t accommodate all of the people who want to visit our museum,” the museum’s director Olga Taratinova said last month in an interview.


Long lines have also affected other sights in the city like the Hermitage Museum and Nevsky Prospekt in what has been called a “tourism collapse” during the May to September high season.


Meanwhile, critics say a government ban on hostels in residential buildings that came into force on Oct. 1 — the same day as the e-visa scheme — is adding to the problem. The city’s 46,000 hotel and hostel rooms were already stretched to capacity and the number of beds available may fall by another 10% following the ban, according to estimates.


Marina Pogolsha points out “For Sale” signs in windows along the street and says many locals have already moved out in the three years since the bars moved in.


“I’m afraid to come home at night, there are drunk people from all over the world here who behave aggressively — it’s pointless to ask anyone to keep the noise down,” she says.


The Residents of Rubinstein have begun to fight back, recording violations and taking the bars to court, while simultaneously petitioning the government. They have also called for a ban on alcohol sales after 10p.m.


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