The Volkovs, Mikhail and Valentina from Smolensk, told EcoTourismEXPERT about their family tourism business created from a scratch, amazing routes, protected areas, hiking through snowdrifts and rafting on lakes, as well as about the unforgettable emotions experienced by the tourists spending time in nature, and about seeing the world in a different light.
- Mikhail, please tell us how you got started your tourism business. What field did you come from? As far as I understand, your path was rather thorny...
- After graduating from the institute, I served as a criminal investigator in militia (police), but over time, this enthusiasm of young years regarding working in the law enforcement bodies went away. I began to think about where to go, but I was looking for similar offices - the bailiff service, tax offices. At that time, my father was the director of the Smolensk Poozerye (Lakeland) National Park, and he suggested that I should go to study in Finland under the student exchange programme.
I went to study to be a guide. After working in the militia (police) where I had restless night and thought about crimes and prisoners, it was just a great year, full of various expeditions, new knowledge, experiences, and communication. We were taught to competently organize a trip for tourists to the forest, to show them a lot of things and tell them about them, and obtained skills to safely bring them back from the forest - be it in winter or summer, by water, on foot or on skis. As part of this training, we spent a month kayaking and canoeing in Wales. It was an intensive and eventful training course. In Russia, I did not find courses of this level to train guides for a tourism sector.
The Finns have a very well-established tourism business and there are lot of guides and travel agencies in the country, we would do well to learn from them.
I was the first Russian taking this guide training course who passed the exams and got a diploma.
In 2001, I was enthusiastic when returned to Smolensk, so I proposed a business plan to some entrepreneurs and told them that I would buy kayaks and be a guide for the people travelling through the forest. They darted a suspicious glance at me and agreed to have a talk with me ‘later’. It was not clear to them that it could bring money and that it made any sense at all. Maybe, they were right at that time. At that time, people in Russia thought: why would any guide take me to the forest - I can go there on my own to enjoy a picnic with shish kebabs.
Such guided tourism activities were relevant in popular directions - Karelia, Altai - where they traditionally went with guides, since the routes there are difficult and persons of sound mind normally do not go without a guide.
And in our region, no one went to the forest with a guide at that time.
- It turns out that you returned to the idea of your own tourism business only 10 years later?
- Right. And before that, I managed to work (for a while and without pleasure) in the tourism department at the Smolensk city administration, but it was, rather, just a paper work that had nothing to do with real tourism. After some time, I worked at the MTS company selling its software in Smolensk. But then I had some kind of ‘age crisis’ when I realized that I could no longer live in the city doing just office work.
I began to visit the Smolensk Poozerye and got in touch with Alexander Kochergin, Director of the National Park. At that moment, they were preparing to work out a tourism development plan. I said that I was ready to join their work, and he invited me to head the Park’s tourism department. I moved there - I got a salary about two times lower than what I had at that time in the city. Our young team set to work passionately and we guided our excursions, made new programmes, routes, trails and held photo tours. I worked at the Park’s tourism department from 2008 to 2011.
And over time, I realized that the office ‘paper’ work is inevitable at a state institution, too, including accounting, plans, a lot of paper work. And the idea had come up that I already know the area and the information required, so I might as well organize and lead similar tours and excursions myself?
I voiced this idea to my colleague Natalya who moved to the Smolensk Poozerye from Moscow and worked at the National Park. She was eager to join the work. We quit the job at the National Park, pooled 50,000 roubles each, bought 10 bicycles and an outdoor stall, ordered fridge magnets and T-shirts, and started selling souvenirs in the local square.
Natalya registered as an IE (individual entrepreneur) and I went to the Labor Exchange (Unemployment Benefit Office), because after taking special courses they gave a small amount of money to start a business. We realized that the souvenirs are in demand, and we opened a stall in the central park in Smolensk.
And then in 2015, the state allocated funds for the rural tourism development, I took part in the competition, won and bought my first canoes, a trailer and began offering rafting tours.
At some point, I realized that I couldn’t cope alone anymore and I had to either expand the business or close. And then I met my future wife, Valentina, who worked at the House of Creativity; she was young, active, with a lot of interests. I invited her to work, Valya got involved in our business, was responsible for promotion and attracting customers. And we got our second wind and just kept on working, and soon, helpers began to appear. Now, we have a family business with Valentina.
- What tourism services and activities do you offer in summer and winter?
- We have identified three elements for ourselves, including travelling by water, on foot and by bicycle. The hottest season is summer, and our main element is water, including canoeing, kayaking and sup-surfing (sup-tours).
We abandoned our short two-kilometre walks along the eco-trails. Now, we offer longer trekking routes of 9, 12 and 18 kilometres with an excursion programme. In winter, these walks are carried out on snowshoes.
As for the cycling, travellers do not just go by bicycle, but they stop at interesting points on the route and listen to the stories about history and nature. The shortest cycle route is 18 kilometres, it is in nature around Lake Rytoye. On the way there, the travellers see some more lakes, natural objects, complexes, for example, swamps, a dead lake, and the other interesting things.
We also offer a cycle route “To the Partisan Dugout Shelters”. The tourists get a lot of information about the Great Patriotic War. There are many historical sites on the route, and the final destination is a guerillas’ base with restored dugout shelters.
The same applies to hiking trails, here is a purely natural path, and there is a historical route to the high grounds of the Veleny mountain area, where there were battles and there was an area strongly fortified by the Germans.
We also offer interesting tours like expeditions, this was Valya’s idea. We started making them from the Vervizh moss bog, teaming up with a state inspector who has been working here since the 1990s. Most of the swamp is in a protected area off-limits to general travellers, but there is a buffer protected area that is open to people picking up cranberries. And under the state inspector’s guidance, the tourists can go through a real high-moor peat where there are swamps, a bog, this is a completely different world, different nature. And we explore this world of high-moor peat.
- It is so beautiful there! It looks like another planet, it’s like walking on the Mars. We saw very beautiful plants there, three types of dew plants, even cloudberries grow but do not give berries.
- What do your tourists do during the excursions to the forest, what interesting things can be seen along the way?
- For example, they study animals’ tracks. Most often they see pine-cones gnawed out by squirrels. In some places, they see that a woodpecker’s ‘dining room’. In winter, they can see all sorts of tracks, for example, of hares, foxes, wild boars, wolves, and weasels. And once they saw tracks of a lynx.
We try to show people that they can walk through the forest and notice some things that they have not seen before, we also tell them about the alder trees that seem just useless thickets to many people, but they turn out to be useful for the forest, it can be called a ‘red wood’ of Central Russia.
We try to draw the tourists’ attention to birds so that they can distinguish their voices. After all, the Smolensk Poozerye is a key ornithological area of international importance. There are many Red Book birds here. For example, during our expedition to the Vervizh moss bog we saw a huge beautiful bird - a white-tailed eagle hovering high in the sky. This can be rarely seen in our area. One of the tourists had her telephoto lens camera and she managed to take an amazing picture of the bird.
- Have you ever seen a bear?
- We saw their fresh tracks. For example, in the Veleny mountain area, there are marks from bear claws on trees.
- What, in your opinion, are the advantages of the Smolensk Poozerye in terms of the ecotourism development?
- It seems to me that this can be done in any protected area. Still, the National Park creates some conditions, for example, they make eco-trails, there are some interesting nature attractions. The status of a specially protected natural area attracts people. Should I live, say, in the Ugra National Park, I might do the same there, too. As they say, when there’s a will there’s a way.
The peculiar features of the areas matter, for example, mountain hiking and trekking can be popular in some places, and in other places, the conditions for water tourism are better.
We have a lot of forest paths in the Smolensk Poozerye, with good conditions for cycling. There are quite a number of water routes, too.
- There are also many birds in the Smolensk Poozerye, so, ornithological excursions can be made. In general, every year we offer something new. We have so many ideas that sometimes we just don’t even have time to put them into practice and offer a new excursion.
- This year you had an unusual innovation - snowshoe hiking. On the route, tourists make their way through snowdrifts, go to places known for their challenging and steep climb and admire open spaces from a hill. Do your clients enjoy snowshoe hiking?
- This idea has been on my mind for a long time, maybe, because of my training in Finland as it is popular there. Our winter forest is also beautiful and interesting. And this winter, we first began to offer snowshoe hiking not in the Smolensk Poozerye, but right near Smolensk at a very small price in order to get people interested in snowshoe walking. People began to come and take snowshoe walks, asking for new routes, they were fond of snowshoe hiking.
- Snowshoes allow to go where tourists can’t go in summer because of thick grass, and in winter, they can’t go there because of much snow. The places familiar to tourists in summer look completely different in winter.
For example, the Valutinsky mountains. There are beautiful views, but in summer, they are overgrown with grass, and in winter, there is snow up to the waist. Therefore, in winter this is a ‘wild’ place as everything is quiet, there is no one, only your group and animal tracks. And when there are no leaves on the trees and no grass, the views are stunning.
Snowshoe walking gives new experiences. Women especially like it, because such walks are like very good ‘fitness’.
- Who likes this type of rest in the Smolensk Poozerye, ‘who are your tourists’?
- We have focused on one-day programmes, and these are more suitable for the Smolensk residents who can easily come here for a day, enjoy their time and leave. Our offers are designed for people who do not go in for extreme sports, but would like to spend time in nature, see something new, enjoy the beautiful views, try rafting, and go cycling in the forest. Of course, there are also people who travel for several days, for a week, and they stay here in guest houses, camp sites and travel with us during a day.
So, our tourists are the people interested in walking in the forest and enjoying outdoor activities.
If we talk about the prices, the cost of our services is at an average level and below. It’s time to raise the prices for our services.
- For example, one-day rafting or cycling tour for a family of five persons costs 7,500 roubles. We also offer rafting tours that cost just 3,000 roubles per person.
Mainly, the Smolensk people and the Muscovites come here, there are also the Petersburgers. Several times, we were visited by travellers from Murmansk, a city in the North, they have a tradition important for health: they always come in the summer to a warmer zone, to the Central Russia. This is especially true for those who plan to obtain a ‘northern pension’ working in the Northern area and move here in future. If people move without adaptation, it is dangerous for their health, so they come here and live for a while to gradually adapt. They try to stay for a longer period, for a month and a half. We asked many people coming from the Northern area, and we know that most of them are teachers who have long summer vacations.
Several persons came even from abroad.
- Do you have plans to expand beyond the Smolensk Poozerye?
- We had such a plan, and we looked at some areas, thought that we should take one or two more employees, teach them to make some kind of tours in other areas. But now, this plan has been suspended as we have come to the decision to be just a family business. We looked at how other guides work in the Karelia area on Lake Ladoga, in Moscow, where we took sup-surfing training. And they are mainly family businesses, where a husband and wife are in charge, and they have seasonal instructors and guides who work part-time for them.
For example, our acquaintances from Karelia arranged multi-day trips and offered rafting on rivers and sea kayaking. They had guides, but now, they do not hire almost all of them. We have built several of our guest houses, a bathhouse, and are switching to one-day tours to a greater extent and will mainly work together.
- Is summer your busiest season?
- Yes, it starts from the May holidays when the first active tourism ‘wave’ begins. As for rafting tours, we arrange them until the end of October.
- Do you keep statistics on the number of tourists who come to you?
- Every year is different, the number of tourists is constantly increasing greatly. Sometimes, we make rafting tours up to 50 tourists a day. And it happens that at the same time, 40 persons are enjoying kayaking, and another 20 persons are sup-surfing and canoeing. This summer, the tourist flow was huge.
- Valentina recorded the visitors in June, and the figures reached about 500-600 people.
- What is your opinion about the ecological culture of tourists?
- In principle, trekking routes are ordered from us mainly by those people who travel everywhere and are interested in them. They don’t need to be reminded to leave no garbage.
- But there are other people as well. We ask everyone during each rafting tour not to pluck waterlilies, because they are in the Red Book. But as a rule, in a large group of about 30 people, there are cases when a boat approaches after rafting and there are some plucked waterlilies at the bottom. They don’t even take the flowers along with them. There are such people, but by and large, that’s not the way our tourists behave.
And if you look around the Park… Valya organizes a volunteer work day before and after each season on a small piece of the coast. And this year, for the first time, we did not fill my new huge trailer to the top with garbage. Fishermen leave a lot of waste like maggot boxes, wrappers, cut bottles, plastic bags, old clothes.
- A lot of garbage is in Lake Sapsho, including cigarettes, chips, glass and plastic bottles, as well as medical masks. It all comes from the area of the health resort. And we use the boat to collect all this garbage and fill several bags.
- While earlier, we arranged mostly ‘small-group’ tours in the summer, and people know each other and enjoy their friendly communication, recently, we see an increased flow of tourists - our work turned out to be like a ‘conveyor’, and in such situation, different people come. But for the time being, we have understood that we must endure this because we need to pay our debts accumulated over the winter. But in the autumn, we are happy with the tourists coming to us, they are not afraid of rain and cold and enjoy the time in nature.
- Financial investments are required to develop business. Did any sponsors or the state help you?
- A few years ago, we came to a standstill and decided to develop and buy bicycles to update the fleet. Valentina launched crowdfunding on Planeta.ru. Then, the Covid-19 epidemic broke out, and Rosbank announced a competition and declared that it was ready to support the crowdfunding projects, in which small businesses took part. They were ready to finance 60 percent of the project cost. Valya did her best, Rosbank financed us, and we bought bicycles.
And later on, there was a grant from Rostourism (Russian Federal Agency for Tourism). We won the maximum grant and were given three million roubles.
- How much is ecotourism in demand today, to your opinion? Can we talk about its bonanza period and are there any problems hindering the development of this kind of tourism?
- It depends on what is considered an ecotourism. Is it just a trip into nature for rafting, cycling or sup-surfing that is popular now? Really, there are many such offers.
And real ecotourism is a journey into nature for educational purposes, to study the ecosystem, to see the nature. And I think there are not many such proposals, in any case, in the Smolensk Region.
At the same time, there are many ornithological excursions in Moscow or in St. Petersburg, as well as in Yekaterinburg. It is popular and well-developed there. I keep a close watch on one group near St. Petersburg - they offer very interesting geological excursions, study geological sections, the paths of glaciers and stones. But I wouldn’t say that there are many such offers. Although, we have many national parks, and ecotourism should flourish there, because there is still a demand from clients. People want to take a nature hike and learn something interesting, but they face the lack of experts who could develop this type of tourism.
And this problem exists not only here, but also in other places. It happens that interesting excursions and offers look attractive on the website, but in reality, it turns out that the organizers are unable to provide what they promised. We tried to make trips to some neighbouring protected areas and faced a formal approach, a lack of enthusiasm and shortage of experienced guides. At best, they are scientists who tell something at their scientific level, but this may be not interesting to people. The guides are needed who can give professional explanations, but in simple words, and tell the people about things that they understand. There is no need to go into some complicated matters - people even cannot tell the difference between an aspen tree and an alder tree, as well as between other simple things.
In my opinion, no one trains such guides to work with tourists.
- And at the same time, there is a great demand from tourists for the services of such guides. There exists also ethnic tourism, when you come and study, for example, the life style of indigenous peoples in Chukotka, their cuisine, outfits and rituals. This is also ecotourism. Unfortunately, it is not developed in the Smolensk Poozerye at all. Although, in my opinion, this could be successful in Przhevalsky, because the local old-timers speak a very interesting acсent, which, apparently, is explained by the Belarusian influence. It is also possible to develop gastronomic tourism here, as the local cuisine offers delicious food with every dish having its own history. But here, for some reason, people are not active in developing this business. For example, in Nikola-Lenivets, the Kaluga Region, a few families made a summer kitchen, a pavilion in the street and offer food to the tourists, there is practically no place to have good meal in the Smolensk Poozerye.
- What measures are needed today to develop the tourism sector in Russia and improve the quality of services in this sector?
- Taking into account the present development of events in Russia and the world, if I could go back to at least a year or two ago my answer could be as follows:
For the development of the tourism sector in Russia, a number of measures should be implemented on a regular basis and in various sectors of the economy. For example, while developing a road network, it is necessary to take into account all places, both existing and possible ones, to attract tourists in the future. And along these roads, it is necessary to provide hygiene amenities, build catering facilities, shops, places of accommodation and recreation, and viewing platforms. And these projects should include not only motor roads, but also bicycle paths and pedestrian routes along the main roads and to various directions from them. After that or simultaneously with the road construction, it is necessary to carry out gasification and/or electrification of the most remote areas so that the development of the catering sector, accommodation facilities, etc. could be possible there.
In other words, any major infrastructure project should take into account the interests of the tourism sector. For example, when you start some kind of production, it would be good to look at the planned business processes from the point of view of industrial tourism, too.
In addition to creating the infrastructure, there is a great need for a system for training specialists, including tour guides, excursion guides, lawyers and managers in the tourism sector.
For those who are already working in the tourism sector, there is a need for financial assistance like grants, subsidies, concessional lending programmes, financing their advertising costs, exhibition activities, etc.
To put it short, it is necessary to take into account the multiplier effect in the economy due to the tourism development and pursue a comprehensive approach to the tourism industry development from this point of view. Hotels, guest houses, souvenir shops, grocery stores, catering points, transport infrastructure, etc. grow around the tourism attractions. Accordingly, the state, supporting the tourism infrastructure (roads, gas, electricity and water supply, sewer systems), will receive tax revenues in return, as well as jobs not only from the tourism industry, but also from the related industries.
At the moment, it is necessary - as much as possible - to think about restoring the Russia’s reputation as an attractive, comfortable, and safe country both for foreign tourists and for the Russians.