Cablegate: Kamchatka - a Region Struggling

Published: Tue 24 Nov 2009 05:37 AM
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1. During a visit to Kamchatka Pol-Econ officer met with a good
cross-section of local political leaders, businessmen, and
commentators to catch the pulse of this, one of the naturally
most spectacular regions of Russian, or anywhere. Like so many
other places in the Russian Far East, the lack of good
governance and plain old law and order undermines prospects for
development. The local governor has proven a big disappointment
to Kamchatkans, and Kamchatka has reportedly been for him as
well. Meager funding and plans for physical infrastructure
development hamstring any potential for expanding tourism to
which just about everybody we met pins hopes for economic
growth. We found a number of instances where grassroots-level
collaboration between the US and Kamchatka were making a
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One of the Wonders of our Natural World
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2. In meetings with journalists, economic and political leaders,
and environmentalists, during our November 17-20 visit to the
Kamchatka Region, we discussed a range of current issues,
particularly as they relate to American interests in this
nature-rich peninsula 1,600 km northeast of Vladivostok. That
is, as the crow flies, since there are no roads or railroads
into Kamchatka, just expensive air seats and passage by sea.
Kamchatka has 300,000 people and is the size of Germany,
Austria, and Switzerland together.
3. One of the wonders of our natural world, 30 active volcanoes
dot the region, and its Valley of the Geysers is second only to
Yellowstone's vast geyser basins. Thousands of Brown bears, big
brothers to the American Grizzly, feed in Kamchatka's rich
salmon-filled rivers and streams. Without these salmon breeding
areas, the world's salmon stocks would dwindle to meager and
questionably sustainable numbers. A long term threat to the
fish population is the prospect of major oil drilling in the Sea
of Okhotsk. Three national reserves and four regional parks aim
to preserve Kamchatka's pristine biodiversity. There are no
fewer than six UNESCO World Heritage Sites on Kamchatka.
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Regional Governance - or lack thereof
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4. The region has a new and young centrally appointed governor,
the son-in-law of one of Putin's close friends, but a governor
who has yet to gain any of his own friends in Kamchatka. A
journalist, and just about everyone else who spoke candidly,
told us that Governor Aleksey Kuzmitskiy has failed to gain the
confidence of business and other elites of the Region. He is
reportedly himself tired of his position and looking for a way
to get out of this part of Russia. Kuzmitskiy's reclusive
behavior has made the administration even less responsive to the
Region's needs.
5. In this sense, Kamchatka's poor governance is pretty much of
the same brand as that inflicting other regions in Russia's Far
East, but it stands out when environmental issues are of such
crucial importance. Whereas the national preserves are funded
centrally, regional parks rely on regional monies which are
scarce and slow-coming. During our visit to the headquarters of
the stunning Nalychevo Regional Park, we saw how the
international community, including Americans, had jumped in to
help the park evolve, in spite of this meager public support,
into a modern institution entrusted with overseeing one of the
volcanic wildlife-filled refuges near Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka's
capital. Seriously lacking regional funding for Nalychevo's
operations, the UNDP, WWF, US Forest Service, and Alaskan
entities have joined other donors to build visitors centers,
construct information signs, and provide training and education
to workers, school children, and the local population.
6. The directors of the Nalychevo and its neighbor Kronotskiy
Federal Biosphere Preserve did not indicate much cooperation
between the two. We might have sensed some arrogance from the
federal director towards the regional park. But the real
problem was money. The regional government does not fund
Nalychevo properly, and the Russian Federal Government provides
no funding. The lack of governing support is a serious
challenge for Nalychevo, and we assume the other regional parks
as well.
Tourism -- or lack thereof
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7. Agriculture, commercial fishing, and tourism are Kamchatka's
economic base. The regional government has worked out an
investment package to incentivize inward investment. But there
are a lot of horror stories that make for even bigger
disincentives that keep investors out of this part of Russia.
When we asked a local journalist about prospects for new
investment he responded with a story about how a local official
in a neighboring region had told an investor with a successful
gold operation to sell his share. A Chechnyan group wanted it
all, and their people had two bullets, the official said, one
for the businessman and the other for the official, if the group
did not get the mine. He pulled out. Our journalist said these
were the risks for investment in this part of Russia.
8. The climate being what it is, and with little desire to
expand fishing beyond current levels, everyone in Kamchatka
looks to tourism for economic growth. The problem is
accessibility. With air fares running USD 1,000 a seat from
Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk, the cost for getting to Kamchatka
is high. But once you get there, the scenic wonders are still
quite inaccessible. For example, Kronotskiy Federal Preserve,
which is 20 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park,
issues a quota for only 3,000 visitors each year. A tourist can
buy a place from the quota from a local travel agency, which, in
turn, buys it from the park. The park's director, who looked
like he was pushing 30 years old, said there is an attempt to
increase that to 3,500 in 2010. To get to Kronotskiy, its
towering volcanoes, breathtaking lakes, and steaming geysers,
visitors need to take a helicopter at a price of USD 700 a
person. In other words a road infrastructure into or even
around these parks has yet to be built.
9. Numerous cruise ships from Alaska and Japan stop by
Petropavlovsk during the summer months. But without easy access
to the natural wonders, the city remains essentially a fishing
town, and a stop-over of only a day or part of a day exhausts
most tourists' interests, said the local cruise handler. The
lack of regional infrastructure, she complained, does not allow
room to expand tourism much. She said when she raised this with
the Governor, he responded that her agency just needed to invest
in helicopters. She was dumbfounded. "Where do we get that
kind of money?" she asked.
American Connections
10. Kamchatka is not as far north as one might think. Its
southern tip lies on about the same latitude as the US-Canadian
border. But it has a lot in common with Alaska, and virtually
everyone we talked to had one connection or another with Alaska.
Park officials keep in touch with each other as well as
municipal and other authorities.
11. There are a lot of connections with the State of Washington,
as well. The mayor of Seattle had visited Kamchatka a few
months earlier. Kamchatka's second city, Yelizovo, also had a
cooperation program with Leavenworth, Washington, a
tourism-centered town in the Cascades east of Seattle. The
mayor told with enthusiasm how Yelizovo officials had been on an
exchange in Leavenworth for hands-on experience in municipal
12. Nevertheless, regional officials estimated that only about
4,500 Americans came to Kamchatka last year, slightly less than
the number of Japanese who hold first place in the numbers of
tourists. There might be a few more Americans making part day
stops from the cruise ships. Most American visitors are hunters
and fishermen seeking to enjoy the sports-rich mountains and
streams, whatever the cost.
No Gov, No Fun
13. Overall 5-6,000 Americans a year is a pretty meager number,
and if there are only a few more Japanese than Americans,
tourism for a spectacular region like Kamchatka is despairingly
negligible (Yellowstone had 900,000 visitors in July 2009,
alone). Many in Kamchatka lament the demise of an air
connection between Alaska and Kamchatka after the only airline
connecting the peninsula to North America went bankrupt some
time back. Nevertheless, the numbers tell a bigger story.
Without access to the tourist areas, air connections will not
solve the problem, even if the companies manage to run
profitably. Without infrastructure, there is no access. And
without dynamic, competent administration, no physical
infrastructural development is in sight.
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