The word “Siberia” typically conjures up visions of gulags and frozen tundra. But with its hot springs, waterfalls, white sand beaches, and breathtaking mountain ranges, the region is making a move to become the next great ecotourism destination.In an effort to encourage low-impact travel to Siberia, our organization (www.centerforsafeenergy.org) brought a delegation of Russian national park rangers and environmental educators to visit the San Francisco Bay Area in February. The group met with California park officials, various NGOs, and ecotourism leaders to discuss best practices of sustainable travel. Devising an ecotourism strategy is an increasingly crucial issue within the Buryatia region of Siberia as Lake Baikal attracts more visitors, and developers, each year.
Lake Baikal is a place of superlatives: It is the largest, oldest, deepest, cleanest, and clearest lake in the world, and home to the planet’s only freshwater seals. It is revered by the indigenous Buryats as sacred, and referred to throughout the country as the “Pearl of Siberia.” It holds one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, and supports 2,500 species of flora and fauna, 85 percent of which are endemic.
But although the lake is remarkably pure, it is under constant threat. A large paper mill on its banks is discharging toxic chemicals into the water, sparking a localized “dead zone” where marine life cannot survive. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had agreed to shut down the mill in 2009, but then, ignoring the potential for ecotourism in the region, he reversed himself in January 2010 and reopened the mill, arguing that it is the only source of regional economic development. The re-opening drew criticism from multiple environmental groups, including a local partner of Earth Island Institute, Baikal Wave whose office was subsequently raided by local police. Local and international NGOs are nonetheless keeping the pressure on Putin, calling on UNESCO to classify this World Heritage Site as endangered.
Meanwhile, opportunities abound for those who wish to support the emergence of ecotourism in the region, from trekking the Great Baikal Trail to visiting sacred sites to enjoying the local hot springs, parks, and beaches – all of which are helping to create a new vision of Siberia.