Sun, 25 May 2003


Russian visa rules dampen hopes of tourist boom in Kaliningrad

Stefan Voss Deutsche Presse-Agentur Svetlogorsk, Russia

Ekkehard Weber traveled to Kaliningrad with great curiosity and low expectations. The 52-year-old former East German from Cottbus stood on the promenade of the nearby center of Svetlogorsk, once known as Rauschen, about 25 miles away, and said: "I was prompted to come because of the growing interest in the former German eastern territories.".

Kaliningrad is gradually regaining its former elegance. Weber is one of an increasing number of Germans whose family neither comes from the former East Prussia nor has roots there but who are nevertheless interested in seeing the former German city.

But this interest coincides with a toughening of visa regulations for the trip, which is deterring potential tourists.

Ever since the end of the World War II, the north of the former East Prussia with the city of Koenigsberg, today Kaliningrad, has belonged to Russia. About 50,000 Germans visited the enclave, located between Poland and Lithuania, in 2001. Only about one sixth of them actually hails from the region.

The bus trip from Berlin to Kaliningrad takes between 12 and 14 hours. Travel within the enclave is not a great problem. Almost every taxi driver speaks good enough German to get people where they want to go. It costs between US$ 10 and 15 to tour Kaliningrad and Svetlogorsk.

Travelers visiting country districts for the first time can be excused for think they are traveling in a time warp. Little alleyways criss-cross the gently undulating countryside where horses and cows graze. In the distance, farmyard can be seen.

The idyll vanishes only on closer inspection. Many of the farmyard are little more than ruins while the small farmhand huts with their colored flower gardens have seen better days.

In the cities, the old traces on East Prussia have as good as been extinguished. The city of Kaliningrad and its hinterland were a no-go area because of their military importance.

Even many Kaliningrad people today admit that Moscow allowed the city to decline over the past decades. After the war, the Soviets systematically tried to eliminate all traces of the German era.

A sad symbol of this policy is the site of the castle in the center of Kaliningrad until it was demolished in 1969. The Soviet Union wanted in the 1970s to erect in its place a giant "House of Committees", but the project was not completed. What remains is a gray, half-completed bare concrete construction. Next to it is the beaming cathedral, renovated with German money.

Visitors should take time to visit the old German villas in the Thaelmann and Kutosov Streets.

Although many suburbs appear at first glance to be dilapidated there are signs of renovation everywhere.

A souvenir from Kaliningrad is essential: the region remains famed for its decorations made of amber.

The coast in the former East Prussia has always been regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of the Baltic coastline.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - whose wife Lyudmila comes from Kaliningrad - wants the enclave to become a key region in European integration. It is expected that both Poland and Lithuania will join the European Union in 2004 - when Kaliningrad fears becoming even more isolated than it already is.

But the Moscow authorities - of all people - have thrown a cat among the pigeons which could torpedo the plans of the local tourist industry. In early 2002, special entry arrangements for tourists at the border were ended. Since then, tourists from the west have to go through the cumbersome task of obtaining a Russian visa.

Local tourist official Alexander Shamshiyev fear that the rule will deter many Germans from coming to Kaliningrad.

Many German tour operators have taken Kaliningrad off their list of destinations.