Russian Tourists Lured by Italian Culture, Charm
- By Kevin O'Flynn
- May. 25 2011 00:00
There is a small part of Russia in the port town of Bari on the Adriatic Sea — an Orthodox church built before the Russian Revolution that sees a flow of Russian visitors.
The visitors are part of a growing number of Russians drawn here, in this case for religious reasons, and others for the reasons that more than 43 million people visit Italy every year.
Russians make up almost half a million of that number, but the numbers are increasing, helped by a successful visa policy and the country's natural attractions that have turned it into a tourist mecca.
"Russians really love Italy in the first place for its cultural treasures and for the climate, for the welcoming nature of Italians and for the warm sea and for the sun," said Tatyana Bozhko, a spokesperson for the Moscow office of ENIT, the Italian agency that promotes tourism.
Italy has 44 World Heritage Sites, including whole cities such as Verona and Siena — more than any other country in the world.
"Italy is one of the best countries for Russians. There is wonderful shopping and wonderful people," said Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman with the Russian Tourism Union. "Russians never have problems with visas, it is a civilized destination."
Russian visitors to Italy went up from 398,000 in 2009 to 451,000 in 2010, Tyurina said.
Naturally, the first destination for Russian tourists is the capital Rome, often combined with a visit to resorts on the Adriatic Sea, Bozhko said.
In the past, Russian tourists went to shop, but now they go see cultural treasures, said Tatyana Bozhko from ENIT, the Italian tourist agency.
"In the past, Russia tourists went to shop, but now they go see cultural treasures," Bozhko said, referring to what she called the classical cities of Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples, "and then to relax by the sea."
One of the goals of the Year of Italy in Russia, which has brought a myriad of exhibits of Italian culture, is to boost tourism to Italy.
Bozhko pointed to "Italy is Far, Italy is Close," exhibit which will go on show in three cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
One noticeable side of Russian tourism in Italy is the heavy reliance on excursion tours. Italiatour, which has been sending tourists to Italy for 15 years, offers 13 different types of tours. Russian tourists, a relatively recent phenomenon in the post-Soviet era, are keen on sticking together for now — although things are starting to change.
Excursions are typically 8 days long with two-day stops before tourists are taken to the next city by bus. A budget tour with stays in three-star hotels is about 800 euros, with 1000 euros for four-star hotels, said Yevgenia Shavina, strategic development manager at Italiatour.
"Every year solo booking is more and more popular," Bozhko said. "After going for the first time in a group, the second and third time they want to go individually and see what they want to see."
ENIT is currently pushing southern areas of Italy, such as Calabria. It also has 10 employees working in the embassy's visa processing center to help smooth out the process.
Visas went up by 70 percent in February, Bozhko said, and up by 38 percent in April compared with the same months the previous year. The spike could be partly due to a recovering Russian economy, which was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and a move away from holidays in Egypt in the wake of the "Arab Spring," which saw demonstrations as the country's long-serving president was toppled.
Italiatour is trying to promote Apulia, the region that Bari is located in and one that normally doesn't attract as many tourists as other areas, although there is that steady stream of pilgrims.
The Russian Orthodox church in Bari is dedicated to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. It was built between 1913 to 1917 for the Russian pilgrims who came to Bari to visit the remains of St. Nicholas, a revered saint who is buried in the 11th-century Basilica of St. Nicholas in the old town.
The church, which was designed by Alexei Shchusev, the architect behind Lenin's mausoleum and the Kazansky railway station, was Bari city property until 2009 when it was handed over to Russia in a ceremony that saw Italian President Giorgio Napolitano hand over a symbolic key to Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev.
As more pilgrims make their way to Bari, travel agents have set up special tours to the city. They are next to the mainstream tours that continue to attract Russians looking for culture, sun, good food and hospitality in Italy.