Responsible tourism in Russia

Russia is not only a huge country, it’s a massive global power. With Putin either its President or Prime Minister since 2000, national self-confidence has soared, but with it a host of less savoury sentiments and biases have gained ground. Racism, homophobia and suspicion of the West seem to be growing under the President’s tough and intolerant leadership, with human rights such as free speech and liberal politics being chipped away at from top down, too. As a traveler here, riding the Trans Siberian or admiring St Petersburg’s gorgeous architecture, this won’t necessarily concern you, and of course not all Russians share such views, but understanding how this huge country ticks today is fascinating, eye-opening and could prove useful, too.


Human rights

Amnesty International has been flagging up the squeeze on basic human rights in Russia for some years now, provoked particularly by a raft of legislation introduced by Putin’s government in 2013. These new laws – far-reaching but deliberately vague – restrict freedom of expression and assembly, trample on gay rights and silence NGOs. The result is a Russia where individuals are increasingly gagged from talking about their political beliefs, stopped from expressing their gender and sexual identity, and banned from involvement with any non-governmental rights groups.

Homosexuality is particularly under attack. Although decriminalised in Russia in 1993, prejudice has remained widespread and recent laws and rulings have only fanned the flames of intolerance. In 2012, a Moscow Court banned Gay Pride for 100 years, despite the European Court of Human Rights declaring Pride bans in Moscow illegal just two years earlier. The legislation of 2013 included laws that heavily restrict efforts by the LGBT community to fight for equal rights. Russian states have all implemented legislation outlawing ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’, which effectively stops teachers explaining that being homosexual is as normal as being heterosexual, and stops teenagers from seeking help and advice from sexual health clinics. In spring 2017, up to several hundred gay men were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured in the ultra conservative state of Chechnya.

Fortunately, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, and in June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights rebuked the Kremlin for its ban on what it called gay ‘propaganda’, saying that it effectively encourages homophobia and reinforces discrimination.

Source: Amnesty International
What you can do
Amnesty International regularly runs petitions in support of activists and members of the LGBT community in Russia, from demanding torture claims are investigated to condemning acts of violence against local investigative journalists. Check out Amnesty’s website for the latest and add your name. Until the situation improves for the LGBT community, any same-sex couples traveling in Russia should exercise caution and avoid public displays of affection. Since Russia’s record on racism is far from impeccable, too, any black or ethnic minority travelers should also be careful.

Indigenous people of Russia's east

In the far east of Russia, within sight of Alaska, the Chukotka Autonomous Region is the size of France and England combined, but its distance from Moscow means it’s a mystery even to the majority of Russians. Most of the 50,000 people who live within this vast region are Russian, but there are also large numbers of indigenous Chukchi, Inuit, Koryak, Chuvan, Even and Yukaghir people.

This region has always been fiercely independent. The indigenous people here have lived largely nomadic lifestyles, suited to the harsh conditions and extreme seasons and weather. Chukotka has remained mostly outside the control of the Russia Empire, but with American, British and Norwegian hunters, traders and, later, gold prospectors drawn here in the 19th century.

Under the Soviet regime and Stalin’s policy of collectivisation, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, indigenous people were resettled on collective farms, which was hugely damaging to their nomadic traditions. In addition, Chukotka’s proximity to the USA during the Cold War meant the area was heavily militarised; at times troops outnumbered civilians. Without their nomadic lifestyle to sustain them, the Chukotkans became dependant on the state, and when this lifeline dried up following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s it had disastrous consequences for local people. It was former manager of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, who actually came to the rescue, when he was elected as Governor of Chukotka in 2000. He invested billions of roubles, including his own money, into the economy by developing its infrastructure, schools and housing. He also recognised the incredible wealth of this region and today Chukotka is a valued part of the Russian Federation – though climate change still threatens this fragile fauna and flora.

Further west, the Buryat people that live near Lake Baikal are an example of a thriving indigenous culture that also benefits from tourism. Homestays with these fascinating people, many of whom are Buddhists, bring travelers a taste of local life, food and hospitality and add a cultural dimension to any trip to Lake Baikal.

What you can do
Avoid the tourist hotels near Lake Baikal and support the Buryat people by staying with a local family to learn about their lives and put your tourist dollar directly into their hands. In less developed and far-flung Chukotka, simply visiting and bringing some much-needed tourist revenue to this remote land is helpful (and hugely enjoyable, of course!). Most expeditions in Chukotka focus on the landscape and wildlife, but a responsible vacation company will educate travelers on the history, customs, religion and politics of the region, as well as conservation issues. Ask if they employ local guides, too, as this directly benefits the local economy and knowledge base.


They're going on a bear hunt…in Kamchatka

Kamchatka is recognised as one of the world’s most important eco-regions due to its globally significant biodiversity: Arctic and alpine tundra; freshwater lakes; boreal coniferous forests, and a UNESCO listed volcanic landscape. It’s home to thousands of brown bears and some of the world’s greatest diversity of salmon. Sadly though, this abundance of nature is what attracts its main threat – poachers and trophy hunters.

The issue of poaching in Kamchatka is not black and white. The region’s economic state is massively depressed and poaching, certainly for salmon, is a direct consequence of that – in the absence of other jobs for local people, the poachers’ actions are understandable, if not agreeable.

Less agreeable is the plight of the brown bear. Kamchatka has the largest population in Eurasia, but bears are hunted legally for sport and poached illegally for profit here, with about 1,000 shot each year. Foreign hunters with more cash than conscience pose the biggest threat. They shoot hundreds of bears annually and perfectly legally, paying upwards of £5,000 per dead bear. Their trophy? Generally, just a photograph with the dead bear. Some keep the bear’s paws or – and we’re not sure which is worse here – grill the paws along with the tongue and eat them washed down with ‘celebratory’ shots of vodka. Professional hunters kill around 700 bears a year, but no one knows how many animals are poached. However, with bear gall bladders selling for a high price in China, there is incentive there.

The post-communist economic transition hit Kamchatka hard and led to the closure of most state farms and fish plants, so now there are entire villages without a single job – it is not surprising then that most Kamchatkans are not losing sleep over poached fish or dead bears. For future sustainability, however, what has to be avoided is an entire generation being raised with a resigned indifference to the region’s breathtaking natural resources. A poaching committee has been established among Kamchatka’s local administration, which has so far seen a small reduction in poaching incidents and a rise in reported violations.
There are also groups such as the Kamchatka Wild Salmon Project, who have been working alongside the WWF to conserve Kamchatka salmon through Marine Stewardship Council Certification, and the American-led Wild Salmon Center, both of which are doing some very positive work to promote the improved management of salmon and trout stocks while also trying to protect key river systems.

Hopefully, the world’s growing interest in Kamchatka’s priceless wilderness, together with the rising surge of responsible tourism can help to show Kamchatkan authorities that their regions’ bears earn revenue as living creatures, not dead trophies.

What you can do
The most effective thing we can do as tourists is put our money where our mouths are and book a trip to Kamchatka to see its incredible wildlife in a responsible manner, pushing the point that bears are worth far more alive than they are dead. Additionally, while we don’t advocate trophy hunting as a tourist, visitors to these regions should be aware that it is a traditional way of life, which has been sustainable for thousands of years. As a visitor to Kamchatka, the best thing you can do is travel with an open mind, and engage with your hosts to learn more about subsistence living.

Protecting Lake Baikal

Estimated to be 25 million years old, Lake Baikal is one of the most ancient lakes in geological history. Located in south-central Siberia, not far from the Mongolian border, it’s surrounded by mountains, forests and wild rivers and home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals. Two-thirds of these can be found nowhere else in the world, including the Baikal omul fish and Baikal oil fish as well as the nerpa, one of the world’s only freshwater seals. Bears, elk, lynx and other wildlife abound in the surrounding forests and mountains.

Please note: there is currently a ban on fishing for omul fish in Lake Baikal. This is due to overfishing and the ban is in place to give the lake's omul population a chance to recover.

Lake Baikal’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status has not protected it entirely, though. It’s under threat from industrial pollution, agricultural run-off and other environmental problems, including nearby mining and potential oil and gas exploration.

What you can do
The threat of an oil pipeline along the lake’s north shore was averted in 2006 thanks to efforts by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and many other environmental organisations. Find out how you can support the WWF’s other projects around Lake Baikal and beyond. If you’re visiting, travel with a responsible operator, who can arrange a homestay with the local Buryat people, for a richer insight into life around the lake and environmental issues here. Also, if you are offered omul fish whilst in the area please don't buy it as it will have been caught illegally.

Responsible tourism tips

Please ask permission before taking photographs of local people, and be aware that hesitation probably means no. Do not take photographs of government officials and border guards. If you’re cruising in Kamchatka, you will have a Russian crew on board, some of whom speak English. This presents a great opportunity for cross-cultural learning and it is an interesting facet of voyages. If you visit a Russian at home, be aware that shaking hands across the threshold is considered unlucky. Wait until you are inside the home to shake hands. Take off your shoes and coat when you enter a house. Always bring a gift, but if you bring flowers, make sure there is an odd number of blooms – even numbers are for funerals. Men should remove their hats in church and wear full-length trousers. Women should cover heads and cover bare shoulders in a church. In some monasteries and churches women should wear a skirt – wraps are usually available at the door. Vodka toasts are common at shared meals. Refusing to join in is considered rude and it’s traditional (and also a good idea) to eat something after each shot.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Harald Deischinger] [Human rights : distelfliege] [They're going on a bear hunt…in Kamchatka: lusika33]