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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oil Town Hunts for Tourism

www.ugra-service.ruAbdulov and friends sitting with pheasants at the Yugorskaya Dolina.
KHANTY-MANSIISK -- Amid the tourism and construction boom in this small west Siberian oil town, the biggest losers could be the pheasants, as the visiting businessmen staying at the town's hotels have taken a fancy to hunting them.

The Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district's oil-fueled economic boom also accounts for the "No Vacancy" signs that are springing up outside the town's hotels, as hordes of outsiders descend on the town for the dozens of business conferences held here each year.

The region, which produces about half of the nation's oil and pays nearly one-quarter of its taxes, is home to large projects run by LUKoil, Rosneft and Gazprom, along with regional players Surgutneftegaz and Yuganskneftegaz.

Although the business aspect of the city is its most obvious draw, culture and the arts have also blossomed, and a university, a museum and even an international film festival have all been founded here in the past five years.

The city was also recently endowed with a skiing sports center, which has now become a major tourist attraction and the site of international competitions. Financing for this facility was provided in the late 1990s by the now-bankrupt oil firm Yukos.

This kind of corporate sponsorship of local projects has become a common feature in the region, said a regional Duma deputy, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"These companies are our guests here," the deputy said.

Local hoteliers said the Skiing Sports Center accounted for the biggest spikes in the city's tourism industry, especially when it is hosting the annual biathlon, a sport in which cross-country skiers, carrying rifles, shoot at targets along a course.

In a bid to match this event's success, the World Chess Cup, a key qualifying round for the World Chess Championships, brought hundreds of top grandmasters to the town last December.

"All our rooms were booked," said Natalya Kaumykova, services director for the four-star Tarai Hotel, "It was the same all over town."

Kaumykova said she expected business to be just as brisk when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of Kamlykia and of the World Chess Federation, brings the International Chess Olympiad to Khanty-Mansiisk in 2010.

These prospects notwithstanding, the town has so far failed to attract any significant investment from international hotel chains. Vladislav Vasilenko, a senior broker at the Khanty-Mansiisk Real Estate Agency, said he did not know of any large hotel projects in the region in the foreseeable future, and so far only the Best Eastern chain, which owns over 100 hotels in Russia and the CIS, has built two hotels in Khanty-Mansiisk, both in the last five years.

Alexander Kolisenko, the services manager at the larger of Best Eastern's two hotels, the 213-room Yugorskaya Dolina, said that although business travelers made up the bulk of his customers, vacationers were a growing presence -- including a celebrity or two.

The Dukh Ognya film festival and the Chaika Theater festival have in the past few years attracted some famous national celebrities to the hotel, such as violinist Gidon Kremer and actor Alexander Abdulov. Guests like these return, said Kolisenko, not so much for Western-style leisure pursuits, but for "the classics of Russian rest," such as sitting in the sauna, fishing and, of course, hunting pheasants.

"If people come paying their own money, they want their own choice of services," Kolisenko said.

One such choice is to have pheasants released on the hotel grounds to be hunted by guests on snowmobiles. After the dead birds are retrieved, they are cleaned and prepared by hotel staff.

"You killed it, so you know it's a fresh bird, and that fresh bird is what you eat," Kolisenko said.

It is not clear, however, whether such fare will prove attractive to foreign visitors.

Foreign investment in the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district is about $120 million per year, or 1.3 percent of the total nationally.