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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flight Curbs Spell Trouble for St. Pete Tourism

MTPassengers checking in for a flight at Pulkovo Airport. Eleven weekly flights to Europe have been canceled over the EU noise ban.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The summer tourist season is looking pretty bleak for St. Petersburg. And the millions of tourists that the northern capital was hoping to welcome to its 300th anniversary next year may be vacationing elsewhere if Russia doesn't get its act together, tourism officials and foreign airlines warned.

The problem: There simply are not enough flights.

Eleven weekly flights between St. Petersburg and Western Europe were canceled as of April 1 in retaliation for a European Union noise ban on Russian planes. The flights were operated by SAS, KLM and Finnair.

Airlines and city officials said that even before the restriction was introduced there had been a shortage of flights due to a 15-year-old agreement between the EU and the Soviet Union that mandates a parity in the number of flights by international and domestic carriers.

"Some operators have had to turn away [tourists] seeking to travel to St. Petersburg," said Sergei Korneyev, head of the St. Petersburg office of the Russian Association of Tourism Operators.

SAS said it had planned to add two new daily flights to Copenhagen and one to Stockholm this summer, a move that would have increased the number of SAS flights to St. Petersburg to 21 per week.

Instead, the airline was forced to cut back its flights by three after April 1.

"This is complete madness and stupidity," said Albert Henschel, head of SAS's St. Petersburg office. "We constantly read about the necessity of increasing the number of tourists and [the amount of] investment in Russia, and then they make decisions like that.

"If the city wants to be a loser, it should continue this way," he said.

Finnair, which lost two of its weekly flights, said it also had drawn up expansion plans.

"I'm sorry that we do not have enough flights," said Maria Rissonen, the office manager of Finnair's St. Petersburg office. "We all have big plans, and this question remains open since our negotiations [with the government] are still in progress."

Alexander Sorokin, head of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry's tourism committee, said SAS and Finnair had no reason to complain.

"Thanks very much to SAS for caring about the development of tourism and investment in our country," Sorokin said. "What they are really doing here is using the situation to their advantage, because we can't provide enough Boeing planes as our economy is so screwed up. They are just trying to take over the market."

He noted that France, Germany and Greece have made concessions to allow Russian aircraft that do not meet the EU noise regulations to land at select airports away from major cities.

"Finnair and SAS have said that they would rather die than allow our dirty ... airplanes to fly to their countries. It is understandable that the market is being divided up, but nobody will allow them to [take it over]," he said.

Sorokin also defended the 15-year-old agreement on international flights, saying it enables Russian airlines to maintain their share of the market.

St. Petersburg City Hall is also unconcerned.

"This is not a problem," said Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's spokesman, Alexander Afanasiyev. "It is up to the airlines to make their planes correspond with EU requirements, and there is still one year before the anniversary to do that. If this happened a month before the anniversary, it would have been a different thing."

But some businesses fear that by the time that picture becomes clearer, it will be too late.

"If the flights are already full ... the fact that some SAS flights have been canceled will clearly damage tourism," said Natalya Kudryavtseva, a spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg International Business Association.

Although official statistics show that tourism to St. Petersburg fell off by about 10 percent in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the city predicts that as many as 6 million people will visit the city in 2003, twice as many as in 2000.

About 8 million foreigners visited Russia in 2001, while 18 million Russians traveled abroad. This accounts for just 1 percent of the global tourism industry.

Meanwhile, local air carrier Pulkovo Airlines said the new EU regulations have not been a problem and that it is expanding its service to Europe this summer. "We don't have any problems with flights to Western Europe," said airline spokeswoman Yelena Yelagina.

She said the airline is launching new scheduled flights to Athens, Nice and Saloniki and increasing the frequency of flights to Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover, D?sseldorf and Paris.

In addition, Yelagina said, Pulkovo intends to expand its charter service by 20 percent this year.

"We have enough [EU-compliant] Tu-154M planes to operate with and can even send some of those planes to cover [Aeroflot] flights that were canceled because of the new regulations," Yelagina said. "We have not banned anyone from anything."

Pulkovo International Airport has been serving 90 international flights per week since April 1.