Two barriers usually cited to developing Moscow's tourism business are the lack of low-priced accommodation and Russia's complicated and expensive visa regime.
While the government has shown no signs of changing visa requirements, some businesses are ready to offer a room and a bed to the world's economy-minded travelers turned off by the city's four- and five-star hotel prices.
According to recent data, there are some 34,305 low-cost rooms awaiting travelers, with basic prices starting at $10 and with deluxe suites rarely costing more than $100. That's a far cry from the Moscow average of $231, Europe's highest, cited in a recent study by a Swedish firm.
But Moscow's one- and two-star hotels are not for everyone, considering their differing stan dards of quality, comfort and convenience to the center. And many of these hotels still charge foreigners about double the rate for Russians and CIS citizens, but the practice appears to be slowly coming to an end at some of them.
A random visit to a few of Moscow's low-priced hotels showed relatively clean, simple rooms with renovation going on nearly everywhere. A university student, Elena Badmaeva, who was visiting one of the hotels as part of her hotel management studies, said: "These hotels are trying to do their best to make nice rooms with limited funds. They can't afford professional interior designers, so management does a lot of decorating themselves. It's cheap chic.'"
According to Maria Okulova, deputy director of Mosturotel, an association of 20 one- to four-star hotels, low-priced establishments are striving to make improvements to capture more of the country's travel business.
"These one- and two-star hotels are doing their best to meet the increasing requirements of foreigners," she said. "And Russians themselves are also becoming more demanding, having traveled around the world and seen good service elsewhere."
The two-star Tourist hotel is a typical facility of its class. Several minutes' walk from the Botanichesky Sad metro station in northeast Moscow, the Tourist built for the VDNKh (now the All-Russian) exhibition center will celebrate its 45th anniversary in May.
Vladimir Polyakov Jr., the deputy director of the hotel, said his establishment still charges lower rates for Russians and CIS citizens. "This is quite a reasonable practice," he said, "because, otherwise, our people would not be able to afford hotel accommodation."
He said the hotel is of standard design and that there are another 15 low-priced hotels with the same type of architecture in the VDNKh area. "As with everything done in the country in those times, the building was also required to be ready to serve different purposes. In case of war, it could have easily been converted to military barracks," he said.
Polyakov said his rates range from $10 to $50 for Russians and double that for foreigners. He said that foreigners are not charged more just because they are foreigners but because they are used to and do receive better service than Russians.
Actually, Moscow's cheap sleeps come in various types. Along with regular hotel establishments, there are also the so-called departmental hotels, some of which are closed to the public. These belong to various state-owned organizations or companies and serve their personnel.
Open hotels provide accommodations to outsiders, but priority is given to the staff of the parent organization, officials said.
The country's power grid company, UES, operates the Energiya hotel, which is open to the public and is among the few economy-class hotels in Moscow's city center. Deluxe suites cost 1,200 rubles ($42) for Russians and about double that for foreigners. Another centrally located hotel, the Slavyanka, limits guest stays to two nights. The hotel's reception advised potential guests to book deluxe suites costing 800 rubles ($28) for Russians in advance, as they are the most popular.
There is no statistical breakdown on the ratio of foreigners to Russians at lower-priced hotels, but officials said data show an average occupancy rate of 60 percent. Officials at the hotels said that the main clientele are people from the Russian regions.
However, the number of foreigners increasingly from Asia and Eastern Europe is picking up, said some hoteliers, who added that they are often business people on extended stays in Moscow and looking for cheaper accommodation than that offered at Western big-name establishments.
Some foreigners relocate to the bargain hotels after short stays at the luxury complexes, one hotelier said.
"They arrive to Moscow, stay a day at, say, the Metropol, send faxes with the hotel emblem to business contacts as a part of their image-building program, then come to stay at cheaper hotels," Polyakov said.
Polyakov said the lower-priced hotels need to concentrate on developing different services from the big Western chains. Many of the low-priced hotels' guests arrive by car or stay in Moscow for extended periods for medical treatment. Hotels also receive group bookings from sports fans for various games and events.
The two-star Voshod in northern Moscow has ended the practice of different pricing for Russians and foreigners. Since March 16, a single price list has been used for all guests, $6 to $50. Natalya Yarovaya, the deputy director of the hotel, said the Voshod could "easily" pass the requirements to become a three-star hotel except that it lacks a large enough common waiting and sitting area for guests.
The hotel's average occupancy rate is 85 percent, according to Yarovaya. "For peak periods, the occupancy rate can be more than 100 percent, when a guest is placed in a room right after the previous one checked out," she said.
In Soviet times, alleged "100 percent" occupancy was normal, and people would often beg to stay in hotel halls because of a shortage of rooms. But, often, there were rooms available awaiting only an extra payment to a reception worker. "In those days, it would have been absurd to seek hotel accommodation without paying a bribe," Polyakov said.
Today, the main problem for these types of hotels is their underdeveloped infrastructure, experts say. Soviet architecture didn't envisage modern hotel services, and hotels now have to plan renovation work to install cafes, hairdressing salons and business centers.
Polyakov said getting qualified help is also a difficulty faced by the hotels because "the salary we can pay is not that attractive. I wish I could recruit more qualified people."
Another issue facing the bargain-rate hotels is the organization of building sites. Unlike the tower-type four- or five-star hotels, the cheaper hotels are often located in several separate buildings on a block.
"This means a different economy, a more complicated one with the necessity of maintaining underground communications [wiring]. Electrical blowouts and outages appear every day," Polyakov said.
The Tourist, located in seven separate bulks, has 10-km of underground wiring connecting its facilities, he said.
Polyakov and Yarovaya said they see their main objective as increasing comfort and facilities for their guests to attract more clientele. Both hotels are undergoing upgrades, mainly using Russian furniture and equipment.
In the past, the Moscow government placed refugees from various parts of the country in these hotels. On March 6, the last of several refugees from the Caucasus left the Voshod hotel, after which the management immediately began its renovation project.