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Christoph Lingg

2011-10-24

I booked my stay at hotel Gallery in Perm through Ost-West and can only recommend Ost-West as well as the hotel, which is clean, nice and charming!

Jussi Itkonen

2011-10-08

We booked excursion to Tsarskoje Selo for 6 people via Ostwest's website. Confirmation came the next day and guide Svetlana met us in hour hotel. She knew everything and we spent information packed 5 hours learning so much about past and also present in St. Petersburg.

Max Ockum

2011-09-30

Ich habe meine Transfers vom Flughafen zum Hafen in St.Petersburg und vom Hafen zum Airport in Moskau über Natalia Zolotareva gebucht. Der Kontakt war hervorragend. Die Transfers wurden pünktlich und zu voller Zufriedenheit durchgeführt. Vielen Dank an Natalia und Ihre Fahrer.

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Interviewprint version

Company director and propriator Stephanie Tsomakaeva

German-born Stephanie Tsomakaeva is the director of Ost-West Kontaktservice (providing individual tours to Russia) and was one of the first foreign business women in the city. She has 15 years of experience here and we met to talk about the developments that have occurred in business and in society.

What brought you here?

I put my finger on the map. In 1988 I wanted to journey around the Baltic Sea by car. In the time of the Soviet Union I was not permitted to travel it directly, so I had to travel through St. Petersburg and Moscow. I really enjoyed the cities and decided to come back. I later met my husband in Nazran, Ingushetia (a neighboring republic of Chechnya) while I was working there as the coordinator of a small business training centre 2001—2004.

Why, when and how did you come up with the idea of setting up a travel agency?

It sort of started by itself! Friends and family from home wanted to visit me when I moved to St. Petersburg in 1991, so I founded a company in order to get a stamp. In those days without a stamp you couldn't do anything! Initially my aim was to open a night cafe for foreigners and Russians, which I did — but the demand of the tourist business grew to such an extent that I decided to focus on Ost-West and I closed the cafe in 1994.

What do you think has happened to the tourist industry in Russia over the last ten years?

It became an industry. When I began in 1992, there was no market whatsoever. There were very few group tourist agencies offering similar products. Only after the 1997 crisis did tourism become a mass product. The niche for the individual traveller has grown rapidly in the last five years. More young people are coming here, the Trans-Siberian railway is the current vogue for backpackers and they're also doing things like motorbike journeys across the continent. At the same time, group tours are declining because hotel prices are rising and groups of older people would rather take a cruise as it's cheaper.

This summer the first budget airline (from Italy) will fly to St. Petersburg. How do you think such companies will change the tourism market in Russia?

The industry will simply expand. The city administration wants St. Petersburg to be in five years the fifth top tourist destination in Europe, with five million visitors per year. This would be impossible without the increase of the individual traveller and cheap flights are a product of this market.

Your company is co-operates with the Lomographic Embassy. Can you tell us more?

Lomography is a photographic art movement founded in Austria. It's actually a personal interest of mine — I'm the Ambassador of Lomography here! The Lomo Compact is a camera which was produced only in St. Petersburg. It is used by Lomographers world wide and they take a very special kind of photograph. My company helps with Lomo events, exhibitions and guides Lomo travellers — we take them to see the old camera factory, for example.

In 2005, 34 foreign people were killed in St. Petersburg. What do you think about the attitudes to foreigners in Russia?

It's the saddest development in Russia. The increase in racism started around the 1998 default. There were many cases of foreigners investing in Russia and not respecting the laws, so creating negative common opinion about foreigners. They were seen to be patronising a very proud country. Also after the default many Russians lost their income and this is widely associated with foreign influence. Immigration became stricter — they even wanted me to leave. But this is not a situation particular to Russia. Look at Eastern Germany for instance. It's what happens when a system changes suddenly.

You were one of the first foreign business women in St. Petersburg. How was that, particularly as a woman?

Actually, it was easier as a woman. The old men in power know that women in Russia always work hard and to their utmost; but men had to prove their capabilities. The 'Soviet Uncles' are fond of young, educated women and I also showed them that I respected Russia as a country because I knew the language and the laws.

What do you think about the general role of women in Russia?

I think this society is dominated by women — not because of a conscious feminist movement but because of a sad and war-filled history, where women were left to work and manage their families alone. So the women here are particularly b and independent and they are well respected as workers. However, in private life the situation of more women than men in Russia is a problem because men still have the upper hand — it is easier to find a great wife than a good husband. Women have less power because they have less freedom of choice.

You're an active member of the St. Petersburg International Rotary Club — what do you do with the club?

I meet with business people who mutually agree on an ethical way of doing business. It's a balance of business and public work — we talk and learn from one another, whilst donating money to charities. We are currently supporting a renovation project in a children's asthma hospital in St. Petersburg and sponsoring the equipment for a school for deaf children. There are 30,000 clubs world wide and once you're a member you can go to clubs when you are abroad also.

How else do you spend your free time?

Travelling! Last year I was mostly in Europe, because recently I have bought some real estate in Germany, so I had to go back often. My favourite places are Italy, for its life-style and good taste, and India, for its exciting pluralism and its colours, fruits and different ways of living.

What is the best business advice someone gave you and the best advice you can give for doing business in Russia?

A friend of my father's once told me: 'The most difficult will be finding good employees.' It's true, because only if they do their job properly we'll offer good service. My own advice would be to learn Russian and learn the laws; educate yourself and form your own opinions. In Russia, you can only exercise your rights if you know them.