Old Russian standbys still top the list

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NEW YORK -- As the summer high season nears, tour operators to Russia report steady bookings and, despite exotic possibilities, continuing interest by Americans in standard attractions.

City stays in and motorcoach tours to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the country's "Golden Ring" of medieval towns, along with cruises on the Volga and trips on the trans-Siberian railway, remain the most popular tour products for this year, according to Dina Kevra, executive manager at the Russian National Group in New York.

"Most Americans visiting Russia are going for the first time, so they want to visit the main attractions," she said. "I can't say there's much interest in [other places]."

That, in a multicultural nation spanning Europe and Asia and 11 time zones.

Predrag Krivokapic, president of Kompas Holidays International in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agreed, although he also noted the popularity of trips pairing Russia with ex-Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.

(Although now positioning themselves as Scandinavian states of sorts, the three countries -- long ruled from Moscow -- have large Russian minorities and considerable Tsarist and Soviet legacies.)

Tried and true Russian attractions, such as St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, above, are still tops with Americans. In addition, "[Kompas] sees an increase in requests for FIT programs" focusing on the St. Petersburg-to-Moscow axis, Krivokapic said.

Bookings at both tour operators remain encouraging, with Russia business at Kompas up 10% compared with the same period in 2001.

"We're very pleased this year," said Krivokapic, adding that Russia is outpacing the rest of east Europe. He attributed the high interest partly to the historic competitiveness between the former Soviet Union and the U.S.

"Americans are always anxious to see how the Russian people live, to see how they differ," he said, noting that -- compared to other "eastern" cities such as Prague or Budapest -- towns in Russia seem exotic to U.S. visitors.

Not so unfamiliar anymore are costs. According to Kevra, dining and lodging prices in major Russian cities now approach those in New York.

"Although Moscow can be expensive, tourists who know where to go can find more 'democratic' places," she said.

Happily, Western-style service and infrastructure improvements are keeping pace with inflation, operators said.

Still, Krivokapic noted, "people are under the impression Russia's cheap -- and it's not."

That said, Kompas -- which pays agents 12% commission -- held prices on its escorted Russian tours to 2001 levels.

For example, the six-night Little Tour of Russia to Moscow, Novgorod and St. Petersburg starts at $803 per person (double, land only), with departures through October.

For its part, Russian National Group pays from 10% commission; the company offers a wide range of product, including the seven-night Imperial Russia tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg, priced from $999 per person, land-only or $1,659 with air fare from New York.

A trans-Siberia rail package -- with a one-way rail fare from Moscow to Vladivostok, along with transfers and a one-night, three-star hotel stay in the capital -- is priced from $500, in second class; and the 14-night Golden Ring Cruise of Russian rivers costs from $1,495 per person, land only, or $2,325 with air from New York.

For more details or to book, contact the Russian National Group at (877) 221-7120 or www.russia-travel.com on the Web, and Kompas Holidays at (800) 233-6422 or www.kompas.net on line.

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