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Developing Tourism on Lake Baikal

June 5, 2009 at 11:49 am
By Kenny Bendiksen, Andy Shenk

Our approach to Olkhon Island was not easy.  We left Irkutsk at 10 in the morning, bundled into two cramped vans, and set out on the two-lane highway heading northeast to the Ust-Ordinsk Autonomous Province.  We passed without even noticing the capital Ust-Ordinsky, and at the town of Bayandai took a 90 degree turn right, on line for Baikal's western shore.  From Bayandai we climbed and ascended range after range, occasionally slowing to toss an offering to the shaman holy sites on the side of the road. The final 50 km of our drive led north east again to meet the narrow strip of water separating Olkhon from the mainland.  This final stretch was broken up by alternate stretches of gravel and asphalt, but driving through the large village of Elantsi we did notice an ATM advertised on one storefront, evidence that this highway is in high demand at some point during the year. At land's end we parked our vans at the ferry dock and relaxed for an hour by climbing the surrounding hills, resting in the vans and tossing frisbee.  When the ferry arrived, it moved quickly, taking us across in less than half an hour and depositing us on the southern tip of Olkhon.  From there we had another 30 km and another 30 minutes on dusty, bumpy roads until we would reach our final destination of Khuzhir, Olkhon's biggest village, and the Solnechnaya (Sunny) tourist base where we would be staying.

Olkhon Cliffs 

Khuzhir did not exactly impress as a tourist center.  Dozens of recently-slapped together tourist cabins wrestled with village homes, leading me (Andy) to question whether the infrastructure was sufficient here for attracting high-paying visitors, given the town's rundown look. Nonetheless, my doubts were suitably erased by the high-quality service we received at Solnechnaya. Our food was tasty (high doses of poached Baikal fish were the highlight), our rooms neat and mostly warm and transportation around the island well arranged.  The resort was run by a family that cobbled together their manpower to keep everyone fed and the camp in order. This type of employment is essential in Khuzhir because the last remains of Soviet industry on the island (fish factories) have shut down and other than tourism little work is available except for poaching or the limited government jobs in Khuzhir. The one resource families do have is labor and the dozens of tourist camps around the island are evidence of the desire to draw the tourists that could feed this faltering economy. Our guide on Olkhon, Ilya, when asked, agreed that tourism was one of the only things keeping Khuzhir on its feet, although he didn't seem too enthusiastic about its arrival, just complacent.

Abandoned Fish Refrigerator 

So far, however, the island as a whole is not heavily built up at all. Just a half-kilometer from our tourist base was a beautiful beach with a lone overturned boat as the only sign of human invasion. Sand stretched off in either direction for kilometers and across the water the mountains of the mainland loomed through the hazy sky. Many of us took the opportunity to "swim" here--which means in for twenty painfully freezing seconds and then out like corks from a bottle. Spending the last evening on the island here (not swimming, but frisbeeing) we realized just how empty the place is--in our whole time of playing frisbee as the sun set, a single young couple wandered past down the beach. The beach was ours--practically the only tourists on Olkhon--to enjoy. As was the sunset (incidentally a breathtaking one). But this "undisturbed" environment, as with much of Baikal, is changing rapidly. Our guide around the island, Ilya, had the same comment at almost every scenic beach overlook: "there used to be nerpas (seals) right down there, but in the past ten years they've gone away." And at some of those locations, trash was all too visible in tidepools and among the rocks--and this is at the beginning of a crisis-depressed season. Though Olkhon was beautiful, it's clear that a prolonged and heavy tourist industry here will tarnish that, and so we felt ourselves caught up in that debate: can we enjoy this place with an easy mind knowing that we're part of that trend? Should tourism be seen as hope for the local economy or a threat to the local ecology? The question is an open one, and in any case there is such a thing as "eco-responsible" tourism. But there for you is something of the dilemma presented to us by Olkhon which in many ways parallels in microcosm the plight of Baikal as a whole.

Olkhon Sunset 

Long an insignificant blip on the map that for decades housed a prison camp and families that had been forced to move here to work the fish factories, Olkhon is now regarded as a Russian national treasure and developing tourist hotspot. Most certainly, industry on the Soviet scale is not practical anymore, given high overhead due to the island's remote location.  Tourism, as we observed, however, is not being pursued along ecological lines, with loose zoning laws and unrestricted access to any point on the island.  When poachers are allowed to supply the tourist industry with fish you know that strict restrictions on tourist activity cannot be high. Will Russia's growing middle class swallow up Olkhon in the coming decades, running roughshod over lax laws in their excitement to taste the world's largest and cleanest source of fresh water?  The only thing that we see saving Olkhon from ecological disaster is its remote location.  Hopefully the combination of minimized tourism and concurrent employment for Olkhon's residents will continue to serve the island in the future.  Sadly, the nerpas are already gone.  Who knows what more will disappear in the coming years.