Ready to Ruble

Prices Rise as St. Petersburg Fest Kicks Off

Fellows Spring 2003

By Suzanne Sataline

June 05, 2009

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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.

Tourism plummeted after the ruble collapsed in 1998, and the country teetered on the brink of ruin. A year later, crude prices rose and Russia's oil industry began pumping billions into the economy. Tourists rediscovered the city, as did tour operators trying to capitalize on June's White Nights and its endless stream of sunshine. Residents from Russian's second capital realized that foreigners could be another kind of black gold. Each year, more restaurants and hotels opened, but not enough to cater to the ballooning summer crowds. Thus prices have surged, sometimes doubling or quadrupling in the past four years.

Five years ago during high season you could snag a room in the monolithic Hotel St. Petersburg with a view of the Neva River for $50 a night. Entrance to the Hermitage cost $10. Only the major churches like the Kazan Cathedral demanded money, usually a couple of dollars.

An outing at the Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Kirov Ballet, could cost as little as $5 for front orchestra seats. And a dinner for two of exquisite Russian food at 1913 God (The Year of 1913) might cost $50 or $60.

Not anymore. The chrome- and glass-furnished restaurant now commands at least $50 per person to sup on smoked sturgeon and pelmeni, the Russian ravioli. Those prices attract mostly financiers and leather-jacketed "businessmen."

Entrance fees to tourist attractions have climbed to $10 a pop or more, even for sanctuaries such as the pineapple-inspired Church on Spilled Blood. Rooms at the Hotel St. Petersburg, with cot-size wooden beds, start at $100 a night. It's a bargain, though, when compared with a room for two at the marble-laden Grand Hotel Europe, which soared to $410 a night at the beginning of May, and that doesn't include breakfast (an extra $31 per person).

The reason for the hike, says Goerdt, is that Western hotels need quality goods, and "quality products are in the West." If an item costs $1 in Finland, it costs twice that to import it. When Russian entrepreneurs see the prices at an international hotel, they think they can charge that rate as well.

Prices at the Mariinsky seem to antagonize the most visitors. Russian law established the disparities of a two-tiered pricing system, and it is still maintained by the theater and a few other cultural institutions, including the Hermitage. (The state railways stopped the practice after its offices were pummeled with complaints.) A visitor seeking a Saturday night orchestra seat for the Kirov Ballet can expect to pay $80, as much as $120 during this year's White Nights, and even more if you buy from a hotel concierge. If a foreign visitor tries to sneak in with a native's $11 ticket, suspicious ushers demand proof of residency.

Paul Webster, a Canadian freelance writer who lives in Moscow, was stunned at the ticket prices when he arrived at the box office in March with a friend from Los Angeles. The two decided to share one resident's ticket. Webster saw one act and then his friend, flashing the resident ID, watched the other.

Dual pricing doesn't bother some foreigners who are longtime ex-pats. Indeed, rising prices affect all Russians, who pay more for bread, heat, clothing and metro rides, while wages have stagnated. For most, a theater ticket is an impossible luxury. Lindsay Ellwood, a financial consultant in St. Petersburg, says wealthier Westerners have a duty to help Russia maintain its premiere ballet and art traditions.

"The prices they are charging are not inconsistent with the quality of productions that you'd pay for in other international cities," she said. "If they expected the local people to pay those prices, the local people would be completely shut out of their cultural heritage."

Except Webster said he did not see the quality of the Metropolitan Opera or the Royal Opera House. With each bobble of the foot, Webster realized these were not Kirov stars, who frequently tour in the West to raise money, but members of the less-experienced corps.

"They should be careful about getting the right balance," he said. "If the quality diminishes and the prices shoot up, they're going to lose clientele."

Quality is a frequent lament of Westerners anywhere in Russia. In the major cities, visitors are often unaware that five-star prices do not buy the equivalent in comfort and service. The situation irks Rachel Shackleton, a British business manager.

"The perception is, 'This is the Mariinsky! This is the Hermitage! We have the biggest art collection in Europe!' " Shackleton said. "Yes, but the fact is you put your visitor through hell to buy a ticket and that devalues what they see and how they see it. If you want foreigners to pay $15, make sure you have well-trained receptionists who are well-dressed, speak two languages, who greet you with a smile and who take your money with a bigger smile and answer all your questions."

She has trained the staff at several tourist locations, including St. Petersburg's bigger hotels. The largest obstacle was teaching workers about excellent service when there were no top-drawer hotels or restaurants in town to learn from.

That's no longer an issue, but there is still a frequent feeling of antagonism toward strangers -- the famous Soviet brusqueness that demands you pay in cash now and get in that line. Shackleton calls it the "initial growling period" and figures it may take two generations for those attitudes to die out.

"They associate service with 'servile,' " said Steven Caron, a California native who arrived in the former Soviet Union in 1990 and stayed to open the St. Petersburg International Hostel. "It's difficult for their egos: 'If the customer is always right, it means I'm a loser.' "

Russians still have to grapple with the notion of gratis. Caron recalled visiting a fast-food restaurant and paying for a large order of fries. It came with one packet of ketchup. Caron asked for another, and the clerk said he couldn't do that. Caron offered to buy more ketchup. Still no. "You mean I have to buy two fries to get two ketchups?" he asked. The answer was yes.

All this might be brushed off with a laugh if it weren't increasingly difficult and expensive to get to Russia. Visa requirements change like the seasons and are inconsistently applied. Currently, obtaining a four-week tourist visa requires sponsorship by a tourism organization, a hotel voucher, a cover letter from a U.S. travel agency, your itinerary with all accommodations listed and $70 for two-week processing. (Of course, all arrangements can be canceled after obtaining the visa.) "I think visa requirements are impeding the development of tourism in St. Petersburg and Moscow," Caron said. "It's too much of a pain to get a visa, and it turns people away."

Once in the country, a visitor has three days to register -- or else. This is done automatically for hotel guests. But those staying in private homes must do it themselves, by queuing at the local Office for Visas and Registration, known as UVIR or OVIR, or paying someone $30 or $40 to do it for them. Don't have the proper stamp? The authorities might take no notice of your companion but may detain you on the street or at the airport until you pay a fine.

"It's a game. I don't understand the mentality of it," said Ellwood, the financial consultant. "Tourists are regarded as a source of income, often much more than tourists are willing to pay."

Other than visas, the tourism industry is improving all the time. The city has several five-star hotels with fine service, and the old Soviet fortresses are upgrading toward four stars. B&Bs are opening, providing alternatives for the backpack set. Fine restaurants abound, including several low-priced ones run by friendly immigrants from Georgia and Turkey. If a tourist can get past the feeling that the city's collective hand is in his wallet, he will be amazed by what it offers.

"It's becoming more Western every year -- all the facilities, the restaurants, the stores," Caron said. "I don't go without anything -- except Thai food. You can't get good Thai food."

The solution to the difficulties of cost and crowds and the red-hot days with no air conditioning is to wait for winter. Purists say you'll see the real St. Petersburg, the one Pushkin limned. The added bonus is that prices drop, the dust is cloaked in mountains of white. And when temperatures dip to 10 below, the lines for the Hermitage zip right along.

Details: St. Petersburg, Russia

GETTING THERE: Most carriers fly to St. Petersburg from New York, including Air France, Delta (with direct flights), British Airways and Russia's Aeroflot. Lufthansa and Air France depart from D.C., via Frankfurt or Paris, for $710 and $778 round trip, respectively. You can also fly to Moscow (summer fares from D.C. start at around $725) and catch a high-speed or overnight train for the nine-hour ride to St. Petersburg; tickets are $36 to $70 one way.

WHERE TO STAY: Accommodations are tight in St. Petersburg and demand is great during White Nights, this year more than ever. Many hotels are booked, but have a travel agent try in case of cancellations. Grand Hotel Europe (Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa 1/7, 011-7-812-329-6000, is considered Petersburg's top hotel. Rooms run $410 double until July 31. Astoria (Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa 39, 011-7-812-313-5757,, the city's society hotel, is five-star all the way, with period details, tea in the lobby and a bevy of dignitaries and famous Russian artists. Rooms start at $225, or $1,620 for the Presidential Suite. Hotel Oktyabrskaya (Ligovsky Prospekt 10, off Nevksky Prospekt, 011-7-812-277-6255), near the Moscow Train Station, has undergone extensive renovations, ridding it of its dingy communist tones and doubling the price. Rooms start at $79.

St. Petersburg International Hostel (Third Sovetskaya Ulitsa 28, 011-7-812-329-8018, is spartan but clean -- one of the few options for those on a tight budget. Single beds in a shared room are $21; doubles, $52. No private baths, and cold breakfast is included. B&B Nevsky Prospekt (Nevsky Prospekt 11, Apartment 8, 011-7-812- 322-3122) is cozy, popular and five minutes from the Hermitage. Doubles are $120 in high season and include breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT: At Dvorianskoye Gnezdo (Noble Nest) (Dekabristov Ulitsa 21), the Yusupov Palace's princely pavilion, gourmands enjoy haute Russian and French cuisine and service that is more Parisian than Russian. Meals run upward of $90 per person. 1913 God (Vosnesenskii Prospekt 13; $50 to $80 per person) offers Russian cuisine at its finest and most exotic. Be sure to try the smoked fish.

Senat Bar (Galernaya Ulitsa 1; $50 to $80 per person) offers European-Russian food -- heavy on the caviar and roast lamb and beef -- in a renovated and romantic cellar with a wine list not found elsewhere. Café Salkhino (Kronverkskii Prospekt 25; $25 per person), on the Petrograd side, has sublime Georgian food, with highly recommended staples like khachapuri and lobio. Antalia Bistro (Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa 14) has Turkish favorites, including a scrumptious pizza called lahmacun. It will take work to tally $20 for two.

BOOKINGS: Andrews Consulting (Kazanskaya Ulitsa 25, 011-7-812-325- 9400, is a first-class outfit that's dependable, meticulous and fast. Sinbad Travel (in the St. Petersburg International Hostel, see above) is especially good for budget travelers. Both agencies employ English speakers.

VISAS: While anyone save a spy can get permission to visit the former Soviet Union, the paperwork has gotten increasingly hairy. Visa services can whiz through the process and detect regulation changes for about $40 to $70. Two recommended agencies: Visa Advisors (1806 T St. NW, 202-797-7976) in Washington and Go to Russia Travel (888-263-0023, in Atlanta.

ANNIVERSARY EVENTS: This summer, the city will whirl with special events, from athletic to artistic, somber to silly. Highlights include the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival that runs May 5-Aug. 5 and features all the greats, including "Macbeth" and "Swan Lake," and some truly Russian spectacles, such the "Queen of Spades," "Boris Godunov" and the Hamburg Ballet's tribute to Nijinsky. Tickets to the White Nights events cost between $30 and $200 and can be booked through the White Nights Foundation in New York, 212-759-4979.

The great re-creation of the ornamental Amber Room, plundered by the Nazis and still missing, will open to the public in June at Tsarskoye Selo, the Romanovs' summer retreat in Pushkin. The State Russian Museum will host a variety of free concerts, including "The Magic of Waltz" starting on June 12. The International Baltic Regatta (July 15-23), on the Gulf of Finland, will provide a culture departure. For events details:

INFORMATION: Embassy of the Russian Federation, 202-298-5700, For a comprehensive overview of the city, from culture to clubs: St. Petersburg's official Web site, Other helpful sources include ( and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (, for essential visa information.

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