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Perspectives and problems for tourism development in Buryatia

Author:  L.Brian Kilgour
Source:  The active tourism in the Baikal region:reality and prospects: materials of the international scientific-practical conference (Ulan-Ude,mach 29, 2012).- Ulan-Ude,2012.- .31-33.

The downfall of the Soviet Union disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions of people and had disastrous effects on an economy that was not known for diversification. Towns that were built for the sole purpose of housing factories suddenly had 100% unemployment rates. People without work were unable to find work because there were literally no jobs to be had. In the meantime, globalization began to take off. While the first visible effect of globalization in the former Soviet Union was the appearance of McDonalds and Microsoft, a growing number of tourists also began taking advantage of the newly opened borders. Westerners, intrigued by the thought of seeing Russia after decades of the Cold War, began to fly to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and even hop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. However, many of these smaller cities that were adversely affected by the fall of the Soviet Union saw little immediate tourism.At first glance, especially in the eyes of the Western tourist, this makes sense. Siberian tourism sounds like an oxymoron. However, as tourism becomes more and more globalized, tourists begin to seek out more and more locations. As a result, Siberian communities have decided to seriously attempt to build modern tourism infrastructures to compete for these tourists' money.

One such community is the Republic of Buryatia and its capital, Ulan-Ude. According to the Program of Social-Economic Development of Ulan-Ude, the city hopes to increase tourist inflow by 70% (from 2007-2015) and total income from tourists by nearly six times over that same time period1. By 2020, city officials hope that the city will welcome 650,000 tourists (15% foreigners), or nearly 150% of the city's current population2. Such an increase in tourism could have dramatic effects on local culture.

As tourism has become one of the world's largest industries, tourism studies has subsequently become a serious academic discipline. Tourism studies has branched off into several specific areas, including business studies, ecological conservation, and cultural conservation. Using case studies and statistics, these various branches of tourism studies have begun to make recommendations on how communities can better develop an appropriate form of local tourism. Using several of these theories, I will provide a brief overview of tourism in Buryatia and how Buryatia can avoid problems that have plagued other aspiring tourist locations.

Review of Tourism Theory

The first type of problem that can occur during the development of a tourism industry are conflicts between various forms of tourism. Disagreements occur not only between spheres of tourism management such as business tourism, active tourism, and ecotourism, but also within these sectors. According to Melanie Smith:

"Heritage managers may see culture as a valuable resource to be protected and conserved; arts managers may see culture as an inspiring phenomenon which enriches the lives of those who perform and observe it; museum curators may see culture as a collection of objects which is the subject of dedicated expert research, rather than a source of public interest; tourism managers, on the other hand, may see culture as a resource which should be made accessible to as many people as possible, and one which should be made entertaining and fun"3.

There divergences stem from a lack of consensus on one simple definition: What is culture and what role should it play in society and the development of tourism? For example, a theater director may define culture as high art, worthy only of those who can appreciate it. Such a theater would be reluctant to accept large numbers of tourists, fearing that they would somehow compromise the authenticity of the performance. On the other hand, a director of a festival performance may welcome tourist participation due to the generally inclusive nature of community celebrations4. On the other side of the spectrum are those who consider culture to be all forms of everyday life. Even within this level of consensus, disagreement occurs when cultural representatives cannot agree on what is "heritage" and what role "heritage" plays in modern life. While museum curators may look at the items in their collection and determine that they are all objects from the past, rural ethnic communities could very well continue to use similar items in their everyday lives. Such questions are particularly relevant to minority ethnic groups whose heritage is subject to varying interpretations. Therefore, when attempting to build a tourism industry, a community should strive to answer the above questions to the extent that is possible.

The second type of problem that often occurs is the conflict between tourist and destination. These issues occur due to differences between the incoming tourist and the destination culture. The simplest disparity is socio-economic in nature. Marxism and theories of neo-colonialism are often used to analyze and address issues of inequality between the tourist and the local5. Such issues of economic inequality mainly become problematic when local events become so tourist focused that natives are unable to participate. Inflated prices are often an unfortunate side effect of tourism. Slightly more abstract are the cultural effects of tourism. Tourism has been shown to be one of the most influential factors on cultural change, especially through the demonstration effect. The demonstration effect is when locals begin to copy the behavior of tourists. This includes learning a language, consuming non-local food and beverage, and seeking the same types of entertainment as tourists6. An additional adverse affect of increased tourism is a sense of decreased authenticity of traditional events. The repetition of rituals that would traditionally be performed only at specific times of the year serves to demystify and commercialize culture7. Local theaters and musicians may also attempt to westernize their performances to make them more appealing to tourists. In the face of these problems, the most-successful solution is surprisingly simple: local communities must be allowed to develop tourism at their own rate and according to their own rules based upon local culture, tourist demand, and compatibility with globalized culture.

The Republic of Buryatia

The Republic of Buryatia is located in southern Siberia, between Lake Baikal and Mongolia. The landscape of Buryatia varies widely, from steppe to hills to mountains, hi addition, the southern shore of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest, cleanest, and largest lake by volume, is located in Buryatia. Therefore, active tourism, including mountain climbing, skiing, hunting, and horseback riding,is growing in popularity. In addition to its unique geology, Buryatia is home to more than 100 nationalities and nearly every world religion. The IvolginskyDatsan, which is situated to the south of capital Ulan-Ude, is the center of Buddhism in Russia and houses the incorruptible body of Hambo Lama Dashi-Dorzholtigelov. Shamanism and animism also play a large role in the lives of residents of Buryatia. Old Believer culture is also well preserved in several villages throughout Buryatia. Due to this plethora of geological and cultural resources, the Republic of Buryatia has named tourism a high-priority investment sector and hopes to make Buryatia a center of tourism in Siberia8.

Currently, tourism plays a relatively small role in the overall economy of Buryatia. In 2009, the Republic of Buryatia took in approximately one billion rubles ($34 million) from tourism. In comparison, retail in Ulan-Ude alone took in more than five times that amount9. However, tourism infrastructure is one of the key investment opportunities currently being presented by the City Administration of Ulan-Ude. 93% of tourists in Buryatia are domestic tourists. Of the remaining 7%, nearly 50% of tourists are from Asia and 30% are from the West (Europe and the USA)10. The main motivator for tourists in Buryatia is relaxation and rest. Over the next decade, the Republic of Buryatia hopes to more than double the number of tourists and increase the share of foreign tourists to 15%. Such an escalation of tourism could potentially have major and lasting effects on the economy and culture of Ulan-Ude.

First, when examining the current structure of tourism Buryatia, it is important to examine the relationships between various representatives of the tourism industry, such as tour-guides, museum curators, hiking guides, and hotel owners. This forms the bulk of my current research and I will be prepared to report my findings by the end of this school year. Outside of the realm of tourism, several of the cultural disagreements that have plagued the development of tourism in other regions with a large minority population are largely inexistent in Buryatia. Ethnic Russians, Buryats, Evenks, and Old Believers are all equally represented in the major museums of Ulan-Ude and by cultural tour guides. The local cultures of Buryatia largely respect and support each other". This type of environment is ripe for tourism development.

Thanks to the cultural conditions that have been founded within Buryatia over the last s'everal centuries, the key danger of tourism growth is not based on internal factors, but external. The vast majority of tourists in Buryatia are Russian citizens seeking relaxation. Due to the relatively expensive costs of travel to Buryatia, many of these tourists may be wealthier than the local population. This could easily lead to price inflation, especially in tourist towns. Additionally, non-local Russians are likely to be unaware of culture practices in Buryatia. This could be especially problematic in active tourism due to the large number of holy sites around Buryatia. Tour guides need to be clear about which areas are available for climbing and hunting, and which are not. Fortunately, many of the more serious problems associated with cultural tourism are unlikely to occur due to the role that Russian culture already plays in Buryatia. Foreign tourists are still such a small percentage of visitors to Buryatia that it is difficult to measure their impact on local culture. The commercialization of local culture that has occurred in tourist hotspots such as Hawaii does not have complements in Buryatia. On the contrary, tourism has arguable done much to strengthen local culture. For example, Old Believer performers have been awarded UNESCO World Heritagestatus. Proponents of Evenk Culture, such as the Tatyana Foundation, are positive about the role that tourism can play in cultural conservation. While the number of foreign tourists is projected to grow, there are many factors that should continue to protect culture from commercialization. Not the least of these is the actual climate of Buryatia, which plays a major role in limiting tourists to a few months a year.


While tourism has had disastrous effects on regions of the world such as Hawaii and the Caribbean Islands, it still provides an excellent opportunity for communities to expand their economies. When correctly fostered in an appropriate environment, tourism has been shown to not only have positive economic effects, but also strengthens and conserves local culture. The prevalent attitude towards culture throughout the Republic of Buryatia has ensured that culture is both a large part of tourism and one of the most important measures of the success of tourism12. The interior cultural structures that have allowed cultural cooperation throughout the history of Buryatia have also allowed each ethnic group to play a role in the construction of tourism in Buryatia. The main potential problems of tourism in Buryatia are caused by the differences between visitors and locals. The most likely problem is price inflation due to economic inequality between tourists and natives. Purely cultural problems are unlikely at the current rate of growth. The climate of Buryatia limits the number of tourists and the majority of tourists are Russian citizen. The greatest cultural danger is the encroachment onto holy areas by hikers, hunters, and skiers. This, however, is also unlikely due to the importance that culture plays in the lives of locals, including guides. Put simply, the proposed rate of tourism growth over the next decade is unlikely to have adverse cultural on the Republic of Buryatia.



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