Ready to Ruble

By Suzanne Sataline
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2003

At last she would see it: the imperial booty of the Romanov czars. All that malachite. All that gold. Not to mention some pretty swank paintings. Perched on a bench in the Hermitage, Nancy Wylde of Scotland tried to summon some regal thoughts on her first visit to the museum. But she couldn't think scepters and orbs when she was starting to feel like a serf.

The day before, she had visited Peterhof palace, with its symphony of shooting fountains. Ten dollars. Stops at several churches: $8 each. A sumptuous Russian dinner: $30. And it was $10 each time she and her two friends from England stepped from a cab.

On this fourth day of a five-day package tour to St. Petersburg, Russia, the retirees had planned an all-day romp in their sensible shoes through the museum's dizzying collection. Tickets: another $16 each.

Priceless? More like pricey. And Wylde's financial forecast wasn't brightening. Earlier that morning, a young local named Andrei had offered to guide the trio around the museum. Wylde and her friends had eagerly agreed and sent the fellow off with 1,500 rubles, about $50, for tickets. A half-hour later they had no tickets, and there was no sign of Andrei.

The women tutted. He had seemed like such a nice young man.

"We love it here," sighed Wylde. "But we never seem to have enough money."

This summer many tourists will echo those thoughts. This year, the city of czars and revolutions will welcome several million visitors for its 300th birthday, most whom will arrive jubilee week, May 23 to June 1. (The city's founding date is May 27.) Petersburg will be ablaze with festivals, concerts and grand openings. Its cupolas and balustrades will sparkle from the Russian government's $1.3 billion sprucing. Picking up the rest of the tab will be the masses clutching suitcases: visitors from the West.

Dollars and euros will pour into this town at a rate never seen. In anticipation, prices this spring began soaring, approaching levels found in Western Europe, but with service and standards a cut below.

After enduring years of privation and uncertainty, Russia, especially St. Petersburg, has figured out the tourism maxim: If it's historic or cultural, quaint or just plain odd, Western tourists will pay, and pay a lot.

"The problem is, they assume -- not without some justification -- that if you're from the West, you're fabulously wealthy," said Seattle resident Roger Kramer. He decided to pass on the Hermitage admission and walk around, having just been laid off from his job.

People in the tourism industry are urging visitors to view rising prices as a form of munificence. "Petersburg is not a cheap destination," said Michael Goerdt, general manager of Rocco Forte Hotels, which manages the historic Hotel Astoria. "If the foreigners weren't here, [Petersburg institutions] couldn't survive. It's a contribution to their survival."

For much of the past decade, St. Petersburg's struggles made it Europe's great vacationing secret. Perched on the Gulf of Finland, listing between the Western and Eastern worlds, Peter the Great's tribute to the West is a feast of psychedelic domed cathedrals, sherbet-colored mansions and some of the world's greatest ballet and art. In no time the city became a mecca for visitors with PBS palates and Lonely Planet wallets. The creaky Soviet-era touches -- like the goons patrolling your hotel lobby and the phone service with distemper -- added a sense of adventure.

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