A Dutch Welcome for Russian Tourists

Keukenhof Flower ParkThe Keukenhof flower park’s festival was devoted to Russia this year. One of the displays was a floral St. Basil’s cathedral.

The Dutch Tourism Industry looks east to Russia.

This year, the Dutch government's tourism bureau felt that the time had come to issue a handbook on how to deal with visitors from the world's four biggest emerging economies, whose numbers have started to increase, especially the Russians. It reads a bit like a crash course in stereotypes. In a section titled "Vodka!", Dutch tour operators can learn that Russians are "binge drinkers: Once a bottle of vodka has been opened, it will be drunk to the last drop." Driving home the point is a photo of two men passed out on a park bench. A section on "Russians and Money" explains that the country's youth "will spend their last cent on beautiful designer jeans or jackets." So give them the royal treatment, it suggests.

Such, it turns out, are the pieces of wisdom a Dutch tour company should absorb if it wants to keep up with the times, because the times are quickly changing. For one thing, the Dutch government, especially officials in Amsterdam, have set out to reshape the image of their country abroad. They want to play down the well-known fact that prostitutes, marijuana and various hallucinogens are legal and readily available and play up the fact that there is other stuff to see and buy, like Amsterdam's famous diamonds, for example.

A tour guide risks a mutiny if she misses an opportunity to let a Russian tour group take a picture with windmills.

This year, the main target of this message has been Russia. It seems like an almost perfect fit for the Dutch effort to rebrand. Compared to their peers, the Russians' passion for alcohol seems to make them somewhat more indifferent to doing drugs, and more importantly, they are some of the biggest spenders in the world. (According to the tourism bureau, they shell out a third more euros during their visits than the average tourists, and they like diamonds a lot.) It also helps that as relatively unseasoned travelers, their perceptions of Holland are still fresh and pliable.

"From our research, the current image of Holland in Russia is neutral to positive, but the typical associations are not very rich," says Jos Vranken, the director of the Dutch tourism bureau. Asked to name what Russians do associate with his country, Vranken listed tulips, football, clocks, windmills and tulips again. Drugs and prostitutes went unmentioned.

A lanky and soft-spoken former catering executive, Vranken has taken on the job of executing the Dutch government's top tourism prerogative: to bring in more visitors from what he calls "our future hotspots," meaning Russia, China, India and Brazil. He seems to have a soft spot for Russia. His otherwise muted office in a suburb of The Hague is equipped with a jumbo 12-piece Russian nesting doll. ("He takes it with him on some of his trips," his assistant says.) One of his priority projects for this year, Vranken says, is a joint effort with Amsterdam's Schipol airport and the Dutch airline KLM to move in on the Russian travel market. They have started working directly with Russian tour operators to allow travelers to "cherry pick" special promotions, with an emphasis on attracting "high-spending couples who want to look at Van Gogh."

Joining the campaign is one of Holland's main tourist attractions, the Keukenhof flower park, which gets about 800,000 visitors per year. For 2010, it chose "From Russia with Love" as its theme, constructing an enormous mosaic of Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral out of 65,000 flowers. It has also decided to honor Russia's first lady, Svetlana Medvedeva, with her own tulip variety, which takes more than a decade of breeding to create and will now be on permanent display. In March, Medvedeva flew down to christen the new Medvedeva Tulip alongside Dutch Princess Maxima. (Before that, the only lady of the Kremlin to be given this honor was Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna, queen consort of the Netherlands, in the middle of the 19th century.)

"It seemed like a natural choice," says Annemarie Gerards, the park's spokeswoman. "The Russian market is becoming very important for us."

The Russians are usually first in line to snap up all of the iconic symbols of the Netherlands, from wooden shoes to tulip bulbs.

The ploy has appeared to pay off. This year alone, the park attracted almost 47,000 Russians, about six times more than in the two previous years. Before 2008, it did not even keep a tally of its Russian guests. "It just wasn't a very significant number," Gerards says.

For Holland as a whole, the number of Russian tourists is still not very significant, standing at about 100,000 last year, less than one percent of the total. So it would be a bit difficult to understand all the fuss over the Russians were it not for their spending habits.

"They're not poor people," says Yvonne Hilgers, who has worked as a tour guide in Amsterdam for nearly thirty years. "These are not the Russians from the provinces that you see in Turkey. These Russians go to the diamond factory and buy expensive watches like it's nothing," she says.

As an added bonus for many of the locals, Russians do not tend to be as enthralled by Amsterdam's famous "coffee shops" (marijuana dispensaries) as the tourists from the United Kingdom or Germany. "Yes, sometimes they smoke, but they mostly just love the green marijuana lollies," Hilgers says.

The Russians, she says, are usually first in line to snap up all of the iconic symbols of the Netherlands: the wooden shoes, the tulip bulbs, the cheese logs and the miniature windmills, all of which they lug back home as souvenirs. A tour guide, Hilgers adds, runs the risk of a mutiny if she fails to let a Russian group take a picture with the actual windmills, whose towers and wooden blades stud the countryside, with a couple even standing near the edge of Amsterdam's historic center.

Tourist Tips
  • The best time of the year to see tulips bloom is mid-April. Crocuses start in mid-March and daffodils at the start of April.
  • Stand on the canal bridge on the corner of Reguliersgracht and Herengracht in Amsterdam and count how many bridges you can see. There should be fifteen.
  • Check out a replica of an 18th century Dutch East India Company ship at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam as well as the pickled arm of a 19th-century Dutch naval hero.
  • Visit the narrowest house in Europe, at only two meters, at 22 Oude Hoogstraat.

Yet despite the best efforts of the Dutch government, staying away from what Vranken calls the "sleazy, negative elements" of Amsterdam is not always easy for the more squeamish Russian guests. Drug dealers are not shy about offering cocaine to passersby in the alleys of the Red Light district, and even in the quiet residential neighborhoods of the city, one often stumbles upon a half-naked girl plying her trade from a window.

"Even most of the souvenirs seem to involve the genitals," says Maria Nevmyanova, a Muscovite who came to Amsterdam on holiday for the first time this August along with her husband Alexander, who named his profession as "sort of a businessman," and their 8-year-old daughter Sasha. On a Monday night, the couple was drinking beer and sampling the traditional Dutch liquor, jenever, a slightly salty ancestor to gin, at one of Amsterdam's oldest bars, De Karpershoek, established in 1606. They were the only ones there. Earlier in the day, they had visited the NEMO science museum for children, and were disturbed to find a permanent exhibit called Teen Facts, which teaches kids how and why their bodies change during puberty.

"I think it was a little too much for Sasha," Nevmyanova says.

Nevertheless, the couple says they adore the Netherlands and would gladly return. Laughing as Otto the bartender poured them another round of jenever, they seemed to embody just the kind of tourists that Holland wants to see more of: young, wealthy and a little bit more conservative than the guys who come for a stag weekend. They had not visited the coffee shops, and had only wandered into the Red Light district by accident, an experience they did not want to repeat. Still, the bread and butter of the Dutch tourism business still relies primarily on visitors from Western Europe, particularly Germany, and the allure for many of these guests is the liberal attitude of the Dutch towards drugs and sex. Vranken's unscientific estimate is that about 10 percent of all tourists come with the sole aim of engaging in vice. But as the country pushes for a tourism industry that is a bit more buttoned-down and a lot more lucrative, courting the Russians looks set to remain a priority.    

Russia - Holland 2010
Russia - Holland 2010
This business bilingual colour publication is devoted to cooperation between Russia and the Netherlands in the fields of business, tourism and culture and is published in partnership with the Dutch embassy.
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