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Lifting the Iron Curtain on Russia's rivers

By George Webster for CNN
Russia's inland rivers and canals are practically off limits to most sailing tourists. But this may soon change.
Russia's inland rivers and canals are practically off limits to most sailing tourists. But this may soon change.
  • Laws from Russia's communist days have kept its rivers practically closed off to tourists
  • According to CEO of Russian Sailing Federation, this legislation is now under review
  • Development could usher in new marine tourist industry on Russia's tranquil rivers
  • Although picturesque, Russia's cold and unchartered environment could put off visitors

(CNN) -- Thousands of miles of tranquil waterways permeate inland Russia like a vast, sprawling network of capillaries -- but for over half a century very few outsiders have had the pleasure of sailing them.

As a foreigner, if you want to so much as dip your oar in a Russian river then you have first to complete a three-month application process and get approval from a mesh of government institutions, including the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Defense.

However, that may all be about to change.

According to Oscar Konyukhov, CEO of the Russian Yachting Federation (VFPS), the government is discussing new proposals to open up Russia's inland rivers to foreign tourists.

"The existing legislation has been around since the days of the Iron Curtain," said Konyukhov. "But I think now everyone agrees, there is little threat to national security in allowing a boat full of sailors to cross the border on a holiday trip."

Konyukhov hopes the new legislation, which he says should be through by the summer, will make getting access to Russia's internal waterways as easy as driving a car across the border from Germany.

Konyukhov believes the gigantic nation's network of rivers, lakes and tributaries will pull seasoned yachters away from staple destinations like the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Russia's nearest competitor, the Baltic coast.

There is a "matchless beauty" of the unspoiled wilderness of Russian waterways, he says, adding: "How many places can you travel to where you won't see a single person for hundreds of miles?"

There is little threat to national security in allowing a boat full of sailors to cross the border on a holiday trip
--Oscar Konyukhov, CEO Russian Sailing Federation

Konyukhov says that Russia's snow-burnished waterways most resemble those of Canada, which is a popular sailing destination -- particularly among the Nordic and Japanese.

"Don't forget that you can sail into St. Petersburg and travel all the way to Moscow by boat, enjoying many historic buildings along the route."

The ultimate vision, he says, is that his country "will soon attract adventurers and families from all over the world who are looking for a real exploration in relatively unchartered waters."

But for Karl Richardson, editor at Motorboat and Yachting magazine, it's precisely this mysteriousness and lack of infrastructure that could prove a big turnoff for many potential visitors.

"The Canada comparison is well placed -- both countries are dauntingly huge and often inhospitably cold. But the key difference is that Canada has an immense and sophisticated marine infrastructure," he said.

Richardson anticipates that until Russia develops a coordinated framework of boating facilities, it will have difficulty drawing in all but the most intrepid seafarers.

Konyukhov counters that until now, the only reason Russia's rivers have not received investment is due to the lack of a grassroots, domestic sailing culture.

"Most of the people with boats are the super-rich in their superyachts," he explained. "They just tend to sit in Moscow or St. Petersburg harbor and if they go anywhere it's to a fancy marina in Europe."

The Russian Sailing Federation's CEO contends that as soon as the new legislation is passed, a huge amount of development capital will become available, as investors realize the potential of attracting wealthy foreign tourists to Russia's waters.

But infrastructure isn't the only issue that needs to be addressed. Richardson believes that the freeing up of Russia's inland waters will also have to be accompanied by a more general shift in cultural attitudes.

"I have a friend who is one of the very few who've managed to take his boat into Russia and -- although he said it was absolutely spectacular -- he was constantly stopped by river police and was finally held up in the docks for three weeks before he could leave."

However, these problems aside, the draft proposals represent a very exciting opportunity, Richardson said.

"Don't get me wrong, this could be amazing. Canal and river holidays are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly in places like England and France -- where there are huge waiting lists for renting river boats, and it can be very expensive," he said.

"Russia has a beautiful and varied landscape, so it could certainly find a potential market as a cheap and unusual alternative in what appears to be a very healthy industry,"

British sailor and adventurer Steve White couldn't agree more. "I happened to be looking at Russia's rivers on Google Earth the other day. I thought about just how wonderfully tranquil it must be out there," said the 37 year-old, who this year plans to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe by sail boat.

"I for one would love to go. And anyone who thinks it might be too cold should just go and take up another hobby."