Thousands of Tourists but Not One ATM

MTScientists from the Institute of Oceanography in Moscow studying beluga whales at Cape Beluzhy on the islands.
BOLSHOI SOLOVETSKY ISLAND, Arkhangelsk Region -- Vladimir Baranov took his headphones off, checked the temperature gauge and scribbled in a notebook already full of figures. With a small group of fellow researchers, he spends six hours a day on a whale-watching tower on Cape Beluzhy, on the western side of Bolshoi Solovetsky Island.

Fifteen meters away, the sea was brimming with beluga white whales and their brown calves. They come here every year, but no one knows exactly why, Baranov said.

"First, we thought that temperature is warmer here, which would be comfortable for the calves," said Baranov, whose group of oceanographers from Moscow spends its summers watching the whales. "But we started to measure the temperature this year, and it's not much warmer. So it's a mystery."

The whales are just one of the natural beauties attracting visitors to visit these austere islands, 100 kilometers away from the Arctic Circle in the White Sea. A growing number of tourists also come to the islands to see their 15th-century monastery and the remains of one of the first, and most horrific, Stalin-era prison camps.

Thus, during the tourist season of late May to mid-September, Bolshoi Solovetsky Island's population of 800 explodes as 30,000 people arrive by air and sea. Many of them go yachting, buy souvenirs and eat at a growing number of restaurants -- tourist activities that have the locals, including Orthodox monks, employees of the Solovetsky museum and ecological campaigners up in arms at the potential despoiling of the islands' habitat.

"The Solovetsky islands can't handle any more tourists at this point," said Valery Shuvilov, deputy head of Arkhangelsk region's tourism committee. Any bigger influx of visitors will compromise the islands' natural and spiritual values, he added.

The islands' infrastructure is also suffering.

"Come here in spring, and you will see piles of trash in the forest, since it's never shipped out," said Katerina Grigoryeva, owner and manager of the Priyut, a guesthouse across from the Solovetsky Kremlin.

Grigoryeva is expanding the guesthouse this month to a total of 19 rooms. "We will not expand after that," she said. "It's enough. Why spoil another place with mass tourism?"

Grigoryeva's is the only locally owned guesthouse. Most have sprung up in the past two years and have absentee owners who live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Accommodation at the islands' hotels and guesthouses has grown fourfold in the last few years, Shuvilov said, with 400 beds now available for tourists.

There are also campers, pilgrims and people who rent rooms with the locals. Pilgrims, who make up about 15 percent of the islands' tourists, can stay in the monastery's spartan dormitory for free.

Yet the islands do not have an adequate sewage system and have no doctors or cash machines. Increased traffic has turned local dirt roads into potholed obstacle courses. Forest fires have multiplied in recent years, and while campers need permission from forestry authorities to pitch a tent and build a fire, the rules are seldom enforced.

"Northern ecosystems are very fragile, and Solovki nature doesn't have protected status right now," said Nadezhda Cherenkova, a local biologist. "Legally, there is nothing keeping the forests from being parceled out to developers."

Influence over the islands is divided among often-quarreling interest groups: the now-active monastery, the museum, the islands' administration and the forestry authority. Troublingly, there is no single body to oversee and take responsibility for the islands' development, putting pressure on their nature and wildlife. While the local administration busies itself bringing yacht races and music festivals to the islands, the church would like to see the entire archipelago under its wing so that it can restrict tourism. The battle between religious and secular interests has been raging for years. Recently, a group of historians, church representatives and members of the Public Chamber appealed in an open letter to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, asking him to counter "the efforts of commercializing the monastery and using it as a place for recreation and entertainment." Signatories of the letter urged Putin to hand ownership of the monastery buildings to the church.

In July, Putin received another open letter, this time from a group opposing the church's attempts to gain control of the islands' historical monuments.

Maria Antonova / MT
Cows making their way to the Solovetsky Kremlin, built in the 16th century.
"Handing them to the church will not solve the problem of protecting the Solovki's heritage," the letter said.

In the midst of a political standoff over the islands' future, environmental campaigner Nadezhda Cherenkova is tackling the issue from a different angle.

Together with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, she has applied to change the Solovetsky islands' status on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage list from a cultural site to a mixed site. Under the change, the UNESCO protection would extend to include all of the islands' natural landscape, not just the monastery.

"Tourism to Solovki is growing, but its impact on nature has to be minimized," Cherenkova said on a recent press trip to the islands organized by IFAW. With the new status, it would be the government's responsibility to make sure tourism doesn't spin out of control.

"In the tourist industry, there is an expression 'tourism kills tourism,'" said Yelena Ledovskikh, director of Dersu Uzala, a company that offers ecotours to the country's nature reserves while funding the upkeep of infrastructure to minimize the impact of tourism.

"Unsustainable tourism can easily take value out of a destination," she said.

Ledovskikh's company has been doubling its business every year for the past few years, she said. "Ecotourism is growing much faster than traditional tourism," she said.

Although there is no universally accepted data for the number of ecotourists in the country, the total figure for all types of tourism increased from 26 million to 28 million people in 2007, according to the Federal Tourism Agency.

IFAW, one of the environmental organizations behind the growth of seal-watching worldwide, has been also working on introducing sustainable ecotourism to the Solovetsky islands.

Along with the scientists at Cape Beluzhy, they are concerned at the growing numbers of inconsiderate whale watchers, who they say intrude on the beluga whales' habitat.

Such carelessness may eventually cause the animals to leave altogether and perish without food, scientists say.

Cape Beluzhy is the only place in the world where beluga can be observed so closely from the shore, Baranov said.

But although IFAW is in favor of allowing sustainable whale-watching on the Solovki, some scientists are not keen on the idea. As a place where Beluga whales go to reproduce, it should not have any intrusion, said Vladislav Belkovich, who heads the group of researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Shirshov Oceanography Institute. "Beluga don't need tourism or ecotourism. You can watch underwater video footage from the village, no need to come here," he added sternly, sitting at the campsite where the scientists live during the summer.

Right now, the only way to get to Cape Beluzhy is by an hour's boat ride or a 12-kilometer walk from Solovetsky's village along a road through wetlands and forest.

Ledovskikh, of the ecotourism agency, said she had often come across such sentiments, as she collaborates with scientists on developing ecotourism in nature reserves. "Scientists who work in these fields are usually very protective," she said. "But if a place is popular, people will go there no matter what, and in the end it brings in money that can be used to fund their projects."

Globally, whale-watching is one of the fastest-growing ecotourism activities, generating about $1.25 billion and attracting 9 million people in 2006, according to a report by the International Whaling Commission.

One of the first types of ecotourism to take off, it is increasingly vital to some countries' economies. In Iceland, for example, 20 percent of tourists come to watch the whales.

"The White Sea is probably the only place in Russia where [whale-watching] really has potential, since it's within relatively easy reach and is close to Europe," Ledovskikh said.

Even people who support sustainable tourism, however, express fears that the islands will become a restricted area if the church gains ownership of all their historical sites.

Shuvilov, the local tourism official, said any approach to looking after the islands had to take account of the islanders' differing interests -- including the monastery, the museum and local residents.

"Sustainable development, by definition, has to take into account interests of all sides," he said.