It seems a very unlikely place for a US$11 billion investment in tourism, but that is exactly what is about to happen in the wilderness of Siberia. The vast sprawling region of Russia is one of the most sparsely populated places on earth and still, perhaps, best known for the notorious penal labour gulags that were built there in the 1930s and 1940s.
Now a major tour operator, Grand Baikal, is hoping to transform the Siberian landscape – as well as the region’s long-standing reputation – by turning it into a hub for international visitors. They have just signed a massive US$11 billion deal with Chinese investors for a “world-class tourism cluster” on the banks of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. In a statement, they said: “we are planning to build, not only up-to-date tourist attractions, but to create an accompanying transport [network] and far-reaching logistical infrastructure [around the lake] to attract a significant number of tourists to the region.”
The tourist hub will be built in the town of Zabaykalsk, on the site of an enormous paper mill that once sat on the banks of the lake. Lake Baikal was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1996 and is located in the south of Siberia, just to the north of Mongolia.
It is not quite as isolated as it sounds however, and is only a three-hour flight from the Chinese capital Beijing, from where many of the prospective tourists would be expected to travel. The lake is sometimes known as the Galapagos of Russia because of its extraordinarily diverse and unique ecosystem. It is home to more than 1000 different species of plant and 2500 species of animal, but many believe those figures could be even higher. The lake itself is surrounded by mountains on all sides and contains 27 islands for explorers, with the biggest running to 45 miles in length. Some of it is also circumnavigated by part of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, although the branch around the lake is only used a scenic railway now.