Tourism is a double-edged sword in Altai Republic, serving as both an important economic driver but also as a source of great stress on infrastructure, the environment, and local residents.
According to Altai Republic government sources, tourism is predicted to increase by 10-12% this year over last year in the region. Over 1.6 million people, mainly Russians from other regions, but growing numbers of foreigners, will visit in 2015. Visitation to Mount Belukha and the Ukok Plateau, both ecologically sensitive areas, is expected to increase significantly: over 2,000 people may visit the roadless permafrost covered Ukok in 2015!
Tourism in Russia is complex. Housing, restaurants and cafes, restrooms, campgrounds, and even trash collection are limited, inadequate, or non-existent depending on where you go. In addition, many “wild” tourists prefer to blaze new trails, wilderness camp, and generally avoid tourism infrastructure that is intended to reduce the strain on Altai’s fragile natural environment and wildlife.
Local residents, particularly indigenous Altaians, are deeply concerned with the lack of waste management, litter, and basic disregard that many tourists show for local customs and traditions. Sacred sites, especially natural springs, are often inundated with trash and improper offerings. Larger issues such as landfills, recycling program development, and solid and sewage management issues must be addressed in the very near future.
So, what is being done?
Many communities have erected signage, established guide and horse rental services, and built bed and breakfast style housing using traditional ails. Indigenous Altaians work together in some places to educate visitors on how to conduct themselves with respect for sacred sites and the landscape in general. WWF-Russia offers a series of hospitality training and other tourism-related programs so that residents may benefit from tourism revenue. The Altai Project, through our Wild Altai program, has supported responsible ecotourism and promoted the engagement of the local indigenous community in business opportunities related to tourism. Clearly there is more work that needs to be done as tourism in Altai grows, and I hope, as with any place in the world, visitors respect the culture, wildlife, and land for future generations of Altaians and tourists alike to enjoy.