A smile and French perfume were put to use
— I came to the Soviet Union thanks to my beloved wife. In the eighties, I was working as a guide. One day I found myself with a French group in Moscow, where I got to know a charming excursion guide called Olga. In 1983, we decided to start a family and went to France. Although Olga spoke excellent French, she just couldn’t get used to living in France. Then I came to believe the widely-held opinion that Russians could not live anywhere except Russia. At that time, one of my acquaintances working in Moscow for the Novosti Press Agency (APN) told me that they needed a native French speaker as an editor. They got me a visa, gave me an apartment, and in 1984 my wife and I returned to Moscow.
— How did you adapt to life in the USSR?
— I was an experienced man. I was born into a large family. By that time I had studied in the philology faculty at university, and worked as a truck driver and in a canning factory. I received the wage of an ordinary Soviet office worker and had no special funds to buy anything in the Beryozka shops, where goods in short supply were sold for foreign currency, but we got by somehow. Living conditions didn’t seem to me to be that important in life.
I was struck by the low production standards by comparison with France. It was paradise for industrial and office workers. No-one worked very hard. In the Novosti press agency I coped with my set work by 12 noon. I earned a bit on the side, in particular in an insurance company which helped French people abroad
— How did you get into the tourist business?
— In 1988, I became the representative of the French agency CGTT Voyages, which had been organising tours of Russia since the fifties. This was a very interesting time, a time of changes, economic reforms were taking place. Previously, Russia had been a closed country, but now it was beginning to become closer to Europe and the rest of the world. We were the connecting link between our clients and Intourist, the agency which in Soviet times had the monopoly of hospitality. In those days there were not enough rooms in hotels, and part of my work was to persuade administrators in hotel receptions to take in our guests rather than anyone else’s. A smile and French perfume were put to use.
— Did the flow of tourists increase?
— Russia was something exotic for everyone, in effect it was a different civilisation. Travelling round Europe, tourists saw basically the same things. They were within a single culture, they all listened to the same music, ate the same food and wore similar clothes. But in Russia everything was different: the cities, the way of life, relations between people, the ideology, the cars… It was a real trip abroad! I worked for CGTT Voyages for 25 years. In 2010, because of the crisis, the agency closed. I and some of the team organised the company TSAR Voyages, where I am still working as commercial director today.
Since the crisis, the situation has been recovering rapidly
— How has the tourist business changed in Russia over those years?
— The principle of the work has changed. Previously we had two main partners, Intourist and the Chamber of Industry and Commerce. We did not choose the hotels and guides ourselves. But now we have a completely free hand. We choose the hotels, check the excursion guides and bear full responsibility for the product we offer. Previously, trips to the three capitals – Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad – were very popular. And also tours of the “Golden Ring” (a group of medieval towns and cities that form a ring to the northeast of Moscow). Interest is still shown in these towns today. But our cruises are particularly popular, especially the Moscow – St. Petersburg cruise. It isn’t very expensive, it doesn’t take up much time and is very well organised. Tourists are given the opportunity to see the main sights of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and also the small towns of Russia. It is a leisurely, restful holiday.
We were one of the first to offer visits to Kizhi in Karelia, reaching the islands on snowmobiles across the ice. We are trying all the time to find something original – for example, we recently began offering a tour of the old Moscow country estates. The “Estates Ring” includes the museum and nature reserve “Melikhovo”, where the writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov lived and worked, “Polenovo”, where the renowned artist Vasili Polenov created his paintings, and also “Yasnaya Polyana”, the home of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, where he wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. We also organise trips to Lake Baikal.
— Who are your clients?
— Two main groups: those who come with educational aims, and those who have business interests here. Tourists of the first group are mainly middle class, married couples and families. Group tourism has been getting more and more popular recently. Apart from their business meetings, business people also want to see the city sights. For example, we recently organised a trip for an association of enterprise managers. They usually meet once a month, invite interesting speakers, maybe an orchestral conductor, maybe a doctor to talk to them about stress. They also go somewhere abroad once a year to learn something new. This year they chose St. Petersburg. We selected interesting people for them, who could talk to them entertainingly and knowledgeably about Russia.
— What can you say about the competition?
— We don’t have that many competitors. Russia is a specific market, there are not many companies which specialise in tourism here. Many of them have no branches in Moscow. And this has to be taken into account.
— How many people work in your agency?
In the Moscow office, 24, of whom four are French.
— How difficult is it to find staff?
— We require well educated people, with higher education and with several foreign languages. It is not hard to find the people we need in Russia, the difficulty is in holding onto them. Income in the tourist sector is low, we cannot afford to pay higher wages. What happens is that our staff gain some experience, and then they are offered a job in a bank or an insurance company. Now we have succeeded in finding a certain balance between the atmosphere at work, wages and keeping the staff interested. And the turnover of personnel has become less.
— Are your staff given trips abroad?
— We do all we can to ensure that other people travel, but we ourselves don’t travel much. The Russians have a proverb for this: “a shoemaker without shoes.”
— Are your Russian partners reliable?
— Business relations in Russia are more personal. Of course, there are administrative considerations, such as the signing of contracts, but all the same, the personal relations between the partners, and the trust which they have in each other, are more important. The signing of the contract is a secondary matter. And on rare, very rare occasions, we have unpleasant surprises.
— Now is not an easy time. Sanctions have been introduced in connection with the events in Crimea and East Ukraine. What difficulties are being encountered because of this?
— The political and economic situations are both unstable now, and the economy, as you know, does not like unknown quantities. Entrepreneurs are not taking part in agricultural and food-industry exhibitions because they have nothing to exhibit.
In January and February 2014 there was a fall in the number of tourists because of the political situation, because people in the West see no particular difference between Ukraine and Russia, and do not realise how far one country is from another. Some do not travel to Russia, fearing they may experience hostility because the European Union supports the Ukrainians. In 2014 we had 25% fewer tourists than in the previous year. But now the situation is changing. We have many orders for next year. One of the pluses for Russia is the fact that since the crisis, the situation has been recovering rapidly. But even the present situation has a positive side: the rouble is very cheap now, so it is now cheaper to travel as a tourist to Russia than to some other country. And we naturally take advantage of this.
I don’t much believe in the ‘Slavonic soul’
— How did you find the mentality of Russians?
— I am very happy in Russia. I have never had any problems in socialising with Russians. It seems appropriate here to quote the best definition of a friend: someone we know well and love in spite of it. I don’t much believe in the “Slavonic soul”. People here have their good and bad points as they do everywhere.
— What do the Russians and the French have in common?
— We have a common culture, common Christian roots, we have the same tastes in art and literature, but a different view of cuisine. The French are very courteous, easy to get along with, yet you somehow can’t get into their soul, they are quite reserved. But the Russians prefer not to “keep themselves to themselves”. I have always been a sociable person, but thanks to the Russians I have become really open.
— Have the Russians changed in any way over these years?
— People in Russia now work in a new rhythm. They have less free time. A cult of success reigns in society. There are no longer that solidarity and willingness to help each other that existed in the time of the Soviet Union. But at the same time, the Russians have begun travelling more, become wealthier, and are open to other cultures. Young people are more open. This is a remarkable generation, they are optimistically inclined, educated, clever and hardworking. This is Russia’s real strength.
— You never succeeded in fully learning the Russian language?
— It’s a very difficult language. Perhaps I would speak Russian better if my wife’s French were not so good. My experience shows that it is possible to work in Russia without a firm grasp of Russian. But it is better to take Russian lessons from the very beginning. A foreigner living permanently in Russia now simply has to know the Russian language.
— In all these years of living in Moscow, have you found favourite places for leisure in the capital?
— I am amazed by what the Moscow authorities have achieved in the city’s parks. And I’m not just talking about the giant ones like Gorky Park or Sokolniki. The small parks have also been transformed, for example Dubki Park in the vicinity of the Timiryazevo metro station, where my daughter Lyuba often takes her child, my grandson, for a walk. We walk among the flower beds, and we both have the feeling that we are somewhere in Paris. I am a great lover of classical music, particularly the concerts in the small halls in the old country estates and merchants’ houses, such as, for example, the Muraavyev-Apostolov estate on Staraya Basmannaya, or the Zubov-Polezhayev estate on Taganskaya.
— Is it worth coming to Moscow to work?
— The quality of life in Moscow is quite high. It’s a harsh climate, of course, but the apartments here are well heated, sometimes even too well, so you have to keep a window open. You may love Moscow or you may not, but if you love it, you do so with all your heart.