MBRussia200x115Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is on a Russian river cruise on the Viking Pakhomov, a 210-passenger ship that was just renovated. Her second dispatch follows. Click to read Michelle's first dispatch.

As I weaved between the hordes of tourists at the mobbed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and filed into line to board the bustling Viking Pakhomov, I couldn’t help but ask myself: “What are all these people doing here?”

It’s not that Russia isn’t a fascinating country. It is undeniably rich in culture and history with its complex layers of extravagance and despair, sophistication and lack thereof.

But I can’t remember the last time I saw an advertisement or any comprehensive marketing campaign geared toward enticing tourists to come to Russia. If anything, Russia is a magnet for negative press, warranted and not.

And yet, tourists appear to be coming here in droves. Russia-HermitageBallet

Viking’s four 210-passenger river ships in Russia, for instance, are filled to capacity the entire sailing season (May through October), according to Stephen Busch, the Pakhomov’s hotel manager.

So, I started asking some of the passengers, “Why Russia?”

The responses varied from “Why not?” to mentions of Russian heritage and that the country is on their bucket list.

Mostly, passengers seem pleasantly surprised with everything, from the quality of the shipboard experience to the beauty of and history behind the sites along the way.

But there also have been some grumblings about the shabbiness of parts of Russia, as well as the lack of air conditioning and handicap accessibility at some of the museums, churches and monuments.

What I wanted to say was, “What did you expect? This is Russia. Isn’t its intrigue all of its discomforts and complexity just as much as all its glory?”

Russia-WinterPalaceBut I didn’t.

Instead, I asked Busch why all these people come here, even if there’s a part of them that knows it isn’t going to be as easy to visit as some other destinations (just obtaining a tourist visa is a challenge).

“All these people, they couldn’t ever imagine coming here before,” said Busch, noting that most passengers lived through the Cold War and never believed that they would someday comfortably travel (central A/C notwithstanding) as tourists to a country that was once “behind the Iron Curtain.”

So even though Russia tourism is still in its early phases of development and the country hasn’t heavily marketed tourism, Russia has something a lot of other emerging destinations would kill for — built-in intrigue.

Now, it just has to work overtime to catch up with the demand.

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