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Image of Russia abroad - how to fight the stereotypes?

A question by Elena Ustimova was posted in a Linkedin.com group about country branding:

How can the image of Russia abroad be improved?

Dear colleagues,

It is widely known that foreign tourists are sometimes afraid of visiting Russia. I think it is all because of the image that the mass media have created about the Russian Federation.

It is so offensive sometimes to hear such questions as:
1. Is it really so cold in Russia? (no, it's not, Russia is the biggest country in the world, thus there different climate zones on its territory)
2. Are you communist? (the leading political party in Russia is "United Russia", thus being communist is not up-to-date)
3. Is it safe in Russia? (no comments... Is it safe in your country? There is crime in every country of the world.)
And there are many-many other questions like that (based on stereotypes).

What can we do with that?
How can we break the stereotypes?
Do you have any ideas?

Here is my answer to the group:

Branding or re-branding a country as big as Russia is an enormous task. Contrary to the efforts of Elena to erase the stereotypes created during the "cold war era", the country is taking advantage of this negative branding. Several tour companies are selling visits to the Stalin's office, the Lenin Mausoleum is open for visitors and main streets in Moscow and other cities still bear the name of former communist leaders. The "iron curtain" provoked a lot of curiosity among the Westerners and now the tour operators are cashing on this interest. That's about the "communism" image.

Safety issues (both for tourists and business visitors) will be still a concern, if CNN doesn't stop to broadcast the numbers of journalists killed, the radio-active poisoning of foreigners in their own country, about the petroleum oligarchs ruling Russia and the mafia having governmental connections.

I agree with Elena that service quality and the character of a nation cannot be judged on a grumpy overworked receptionist, even in a 5 stars hotel (which, BTW, is inadmissible, no matter how stressful life in Moscow is). Nevertheless, there are problems in quality of service, and specially an attitude to ignore tourists who are not a multi-millionaires. I have observed this attitude in many ex-communist countries, who want to shake-off the welfare tourists, in the past imposed by the socialist party tourism, and judge the income of the visitor by the brand of his/her clothes. A quality service culture takes years to built and Russia still is way behind the top of service-oriented countries.

All above said, I believe that Russia has great opportunity to brand or re-brand itself as cultural tourism and nature/eco tourism destination, specially on the Western market. The glory of the Russian Tsars, the vast meadows and forests of Siberia, the space programs, the dark tourism of the communist era, the mineral spas (there you need infrastructure), the unmapped beauty of rivers, peaks, etc., are enormous resources for tourism. But they will be never the pre-dominant note in the country image, if the protectionist policy of the government, the circuses in foreign policy and the entire mentality of the people do not change. You need a warm welcoming attitude towards visitors and worldwide public at all level of society - government, travel professionals and regular people from Russia in order to change the stereotypes.

My advice:

Start to brand regions (Siberia, the Caucasus mountains, the Ural mountains, etc.) based on their wild beauty. There will be always people who would exchange comfort for unforgettable experiences in one of the best preserved eco-destinations in the world.

Brand cities. Moscow, St. Petersburg, etc. should focus not only on the Imperial past of the country, but on the modern and creative tourism, such as design, architecture, arts (including the Stalinist modernism from the 50-s). The forbidden cities from the communism period should be an interesting attraction for "cold era" buffs.

Brand cultures and lifestyles. Not everybody wants to visit only the Hermitage, Peterhoff, the Tretyakov gallery and the Kremlin. The wild fiestas of the gypsies, the country enormous diversity of nations and traditions should be a perfect base for all kinds of tourism, if you create an appropriate infrastructure and service.

And above all: brand Russia as THE country without limits. Because it really is - in the good and bad sense of this notion. Try to preserve this authenticity without limits and deliver on this brand. Only this way tourism and country will be able to fight the negative stereotypes and create positive ones.

Please feel free to ad your comments, ideas, suggestions

Rossitza

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