'Educated Traveler' Ventures West

www.imagebank.sweden.se © Per Magnus Persson/JohnerStockholm's Gamla Stan, or Old Town, casting its reflection in the waters around the Swedish capital.

STOCKHOLM — Though Astrid Lindgren is known to English speakers through the antics of "Pippi Longstocking," the Swedish children's author is beloved in another language for her troublemaking character Karlsson-on-the-Roof.

That's why this city's Junibacken playhouse-museum for Lindgren is filled with the sound of children playing and shouting — in Russian.

Thanks in part to a marketing drive in Russia, up to 90 percent of the visitors this January, when New Year's and Russian Orthodox Christmas combine for a long holiday, were Russian, Junibacken employees said. Last year, Russians comprised about 70,000 of the 400,000 visitors to the attraction.

"I would say Russians love Astrid Lindgren. They really love Karlsson-on-the-Roof," said Anastasia Nikulina, one of the museum's two Russian-speaking staffers. "We expect even more Russian tourists because of the ferry."

Earlier in the day, Nikulina said, a group of about 60 Russian tourists visited the museum after disembarking from the St. Peter Line ferry. That St. Petersburg-Stockholm route began operating on April 4.

After a drop-off during the global financial crisis, the flow of Russian tourists to Sweden is again rising, said analysts at VisitSweden, an organization half-funded by Sweden's government that promotes tourism. In 2010, Russian citizens accounted for more than 225,000 overnight stays in Swedish hotels, guest houses and campgrounds, according to VisitSweden statistics. This marked an increase over 2008, when there were just under 225,000 overnights by Russians, and 2009, when there were about 195,000 overnights.

Exact numbers from before 2008 weren't available. But, from 2000 to 2010, the number of overnights from Russia followed a positive trend, a VisitSweden analyst said.

The organization expects the rise to continue because Russia's gross domestic product has resumed the annual increase that it had pre-crisis, Nadja Kuznetsova said. Kuznetsova, VisitSweden's marketing and sales manager, works in both Stockholm and Moscow. VisitSweden markets the Nordic nation as a travel destination to potential tourists from St. Petersburg, as well. 

Why They Go

"We're not a nation that saves for retirement age. We spend," Kuznetsova said, referring to Russians. "Right now the economy's booming, so we would like to see the world."

The St. Peter Line ferry, which can accommodate about 2,400 passengers, will also help increase tourism, travel businesses said. The ferry runs twice a week on a route from St. Petersburg to Stockholm to Tallinn and back.

"The number of [Russian] tourists in Stockholm has increased literally over the past six months," due in part to the new ferry line, said Marina Zatsepina, director of marketing and advertising at the Labirint travel agency in Moscow.

In addition to the new water route, there are a number of other ferry services between St. Petersburg and Stockholm. From Moscow, tourists typically fly. Aeroflot and SAS offer daily direct flights from Moscow to Stockholm. Overall, most Russian tourists come to Sweden on Baltic Sea cruises, almost all of which visit Stockholm, Zatsepina said. Kuznetsova said both St. Petersburg and Moscow generate a stream of Russian tourists, and some residents of the northern capital have multi-entry Schengen visas. (For Russian citizens, who must get a visa before entering Europe, the visa allows faster, easier access to 15 Schengen member countries.)

Besides the rising number of overnights, Kuznetsova cited an increasingly varied choice of Swedish trips offered in Russia as evidence of the growth in Russian tourism to Sweden.

"Tour operators are offering new products, new packages, which means they believe in the Swedish market for Russians," she said.

Labirint is negotiating with prospective business partners to create new tours in other regions of Sweden, Zatsepina said. Currently, Labirint offers Baltic cruises that visit Sweden and five- to seven-day tour packages to Stockholm, as well as trips to the Are ski resort and the Kolmarden zoo and safari park.

A second-time visitor from Russia said Stockholm had given her 'rapture from the Vasa [ship museum] and peace in my soul from the scenery.'

Russian visitors are attracted to Sweden primarily by its cultural sites, natural beauty and tax-free shopping, tour industry consultants said. The typical Russian visitor to Sweden is an "educated traveler" who wants to visit cultural sites rather than soak up the sun on a tropical beach, Kuznetsova noted.

The educated traveler is "not the same as the one going to Turkey or Egypt," she said. Instead, "this type of tourist is very interested in culture, history and traditions. He's well-prepared and well-read."

Visitors are often Muscovites, as the Russian capital generates two-thirds of all package trips to places outside Russia, Kuznetsova said. They sometimes come with their families, to visit kid-friendly attractions like Junibacken, or else with a significant other. Russian couples are usually interested in the shopping and nightlife on offer in Sweden.

In any case, art and history form an important part of the program. For this reason, Stockholm is the most popular destination for Russians traveling to Sweden for the first time, industry experts said.

"If Russian tourists come to Stockholm, they go to different museums," said Kylliki Hellstrom, a tourism consultant who works with Swedish companies and hotels interested in attracting Russian tourists.

Hellstrom said that in addition to Junibacken, sites popular with Russian tourists include Stockholm's Army Museum, Royal Palace and Vasa Museum, in which visitors can walk aboard a salvaged and restored 17th-century warship of the same name. Other popular sites around Sweden include Kolmarden, the Wild West theme park High Chaparral, Santa World and Astrid Lindgren's World, Kuznetsova said.

But if part of Sweden's appeal is culturally rich cities like Stockholm and Gothenburg, the second part of the equation is impressive natural beauty, analysts said.

"Of course, Sweden is perceived in the Russian mind as a very green" country, Kuznetsova said, noting that Sweden is emerging as a destination for fishing trips among Russians. Although visitors are pulled in by famous outdoor sport destinations such as the Are ski resort, Stockholm itself impresses Russians with its large number of parks and tidy streets, according to some Russian tourists.

"I've been amazed by the cleanliness of the city," Tatyana Gress said as she headed to Kungstradgarden Park in central Stockholm one Saturday in April.

The Russian woman had arrived the night before on a ferry from Helsinki with her friend and fellow Muscovite Natalya Pogotsens. They had come to see Stockholm and to visit a Russian friend who now lives here in the Swedish capital.

Pogotsens, who was making her second visit to Stockholm, was clearly impressed. She said her experience this time included "rapture from the Vasa and peace in my soul from the scenery."

The two women said the number of Russian travelers to Sweden is going up and a trip to the country is generally affordable for Russians.

"For people with a medium-size income in Moscow, the cost to travel here is reasonable," Gress explained.

Easy Shopping, Cultural Difficulties

The price tags in Swedish stores are also attractive to Russian travelers. That's because they are eligible for refunds of Russia's value-added tax, which usually ranges from 6 percent to 25 percent of a product price, explained Kuznetsova.

According to Global Blue, a company that facilitates value-added tax refunds for tourists, Russians accounted for 21 percent of tax-free shopping in Sweden in 2010. That is an increase of 10 percent from the year before. Russia is tied with China as the most common origin of tax-free shoppers in Sweden, followed by the United States and Thailand, which are tied at 7 percent each.

"Russians simply come here to shop because prices are more competitive than in Moscow," Kuznetsova said. "Middle-range goods here are of good quality but are not so expensive."

There are still some barriers to Russian tourism in Sweden. Several factors are hampering Russian tourism's growth here, most notably visa and language barriers, both Kuznetsova and Hellstrom said. For Russians, it takes about a week to obtain a Swedish visa — eliminating the chance of a spontaneous last-minute trip to the country for anyone who doesn't have a European Union visa.

What's more, although most Swedish tour destinations offer web sites and printed materials in English and other languages, Russian is still underrepresented in the tourist offerings, consultants said. Many Russian travelers still don't speak a foreign language, Hellstrom said.

"We need more materials in the Russian language," she said. "Russians often come to a museum and don't understand anything they're showing there."

There are other hindrances. More education among Swedish tour operators about Russian holidays and vacation times is needed, Kuznetsova said. Also, tour industry businesses said in interviews that Sweden needs to be marketed more to Russians as an attractive travel destination.

Sweden "can offer a lot to those who want a program of excursions and those who want to relax in nature," said Labirint's Zatsepina. But Sweden is currently not a place that jumps immediately to the Russian mind. "It is essential that the Russian tourist knows why it will be interesting for him to travel to Sweden in particular."

See the other articles in this magazine: trade, cars and trucks, and Koenigsegg sports cars.

Russia - Sweden 2011
Russia - Sweden 2011
Official visits to Sweden by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in spring 2011 are just one sign that relations between the Scandinavian powerhouse and Russia are picking up steam. The Moscow Times went to Sweden and reported firsthand on cars, tourists and trade.
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