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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's Bad Reputation Keeps Tourists Away

Even in the early morning, the summertime line to get into the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican can stretch many city blocks. The tourists who flock to the Louvre in Paris jostle impatiently as they wonder how much longer they will have to wait.

To get into the Kremlin, though, requires only a handful of rubles and a cruise past the bored guards at the empty turnstiles.

Crowds are not a problem in Moscow, to say the least. While the rest of Europe teems with tourists during the high season, Russia remains barren ground when it comes to foreign vacationers. A decade after the country opened its doors to outsiders, it has yet to convince the rest of the world that its gilded palaces and onion-domed cathedrals are worth the hassle of a culture where customer service remains all too often an alien concept.

"The very notion of hospitality still needs to be developed in Russia," Nathela Shengelia, chief of the Russian tourism department, said with a sigh. "Since it used to be a closed country, it's very hard to change these attitudes in just 10 years."

It has fallen to Shengelia to accomplish what 10 years have not. The Russian government created her agency just last summer, splitting it off from a sports commission where it had been a bureaucratic wasteland. Her mission: to attract foreign visitors to a country that used to treat tourists like spies, tracking their movements and bugging their telephones.

An architect by training, Shengelia now she spends her days roaming the halls of government, pushing customs officials to make it easier to get into the country, pleading for money to improve overseas marketing, developing new standards for tour companies and generally lobbying for "anything which is done in any civilized country that wants to attract tourists."

Russia has no shortage of potential, especially for the history-minded vacationers. From Moscow's Novodevichy Convent, where Peter the Great dispatched his scheming sister and first wife, to the Peterhof palace outside St. Petersburg, the Russian answer to Versailles, to the multitude of museums in the Kremlin, Hermitage and elsewhere, foreign visitors could get lost exploring the rich story of the Russian empire. Evenings at the Bolshoi or Marinsky theaters still challenge the best cultural offerings in the West. A boat trip on the Volga River would showcase the Russian countryside.

But none of that seems enough to draw tourists turned off by bureaucratic obstacles, long passport lines and stories of mafia-style crime. Even with a 14 percent increase since 1997, Russia still draws just 7.4 million foreign visitors a year. That's half the total who travel to Poland or the Czech Republic, a fifth of Italy's visitors and a tenth as many as those who pour into France, the world leader with 73 million annual foreign tourists.

Even with domestic tourism considered, Russia's premier sites host far fewer visitors than their counterparts in Europe or the United States. About 2 million people comb through the State Hermitage Museum each year and 1.7 million through the Kremlin, compared with the 6.2 million who pay to get into the Louvre and the 9.4 million who stop by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

It's possible to stroll through Red Square for an hour at the height of summer without hearing any language other than Russian.

"I think the general impression among the people we talk to is, ?You're going to Russia? Why?'" said Carl Traina, 49, an insurance sales executive from Boston toting a camera and traveling with his wife, Joyce, 48, a pediatrician, and their children, Adam, 15, and Jocelyn, 13. "The idea is, what's there? And it's true, the shopping's not great. But there's so much history."

Some of those tourists who do come are former Soviet citizens who fled 10 years ago when the fall of communism finally gave them the freedom to leave.

Tina Saakyan, 34, an Armenian-born municipal administrator who now lives in Los Angeles, brought her daughter, Alexis Achemyan, 14, to see Moscow.

"This is an opportunity for me to show her how we lived here and to appreciate what we have," Saakyan said.

It certainly made an impression. "I want to go back" home, Alexis said. "I just don't like it here. I feel sorry for the people."

The catalogue of hassles that keep many tourists away is long and varied. Visas can cost up to $300 for one-day service and customs lines at airports can take two hours. There are few three-star hotels for everyday tourists and few signs include English. The taxi system is virtually nonexistent.

Tour operators say the novelty has also worn off. The adventure of traveling to the heart of the former enemy no longer holds the same appeal for Westerners who have come to see Russia as a corrupt, economically broken country instead of a superpower.

"Ten years ago people wanted to go to Russia," said Alexandra Lanskaya, a co-founder of Patriarchy Dom Tours, which caters to foreign tourists. "It was like a boom. Now it's like another place in Europe."