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Gorbachev Sparks New Interest : More Americans Visiting Soviet Union This Year

Times Staff Writer

More Americans are traveling to the Soviet Union this year, partly because the policies of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev have sparked new interest in what’s happening here, travel officials and the visitors themselves say.

Overall, Soviet authorities and those connected with the travel industry here expect a record number of foreign tourists in 1987, placing severe strains on the limited hotel capacity in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, the three largest cities.

Last year’s reluctance by travelers to put the Soviet Union on their itineraries in the wake of the world’s worst nuclear accident, at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, seems to have dissipated along with the radiation clouds from that April, 1986, disaster.

‘Groups Are Coming Back’

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“Tour groups are coming back,” said Jennifer Young, Moscow manager for Pan American World Airways. “Last year we lost nearly all of them.”

She estimated that the number of Americans arriving on Pan Am flights this year would be double the 1986 total, or about 4,000 during the summer months alone.

“There’s a special interest in the Soviet Union now,” she said. “We’re getting scientists, artists and business executives as well as ordinary sightseers.”

William C. Fisher, manager of the American Express office here, agreed.

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“The (summer) season is looking very good,” he said, “better than 1986 and back up to the 1985 level.”

When they arrive in Moscow, first-time American tourists have a variety of impressions.

“The atmosphere is much less intimidating than I have been led to believe,” said Californian Larry McNeil, an investment adviser from Palos Verdes. “I have been surprised by the candor with regard to economic issues.”

Deprivation, Unhappy Faces

Nancy J. Lewis of Newport Beach commented that “after visiting Leningrad and Moscow for a week and seeing the Soviet citizens and their deprivation, their unhappy faces, I’ve got to think there’s something wrong with the (Soviet) system.”

Another Palos Verdes resident, Thomas E. Malone, also commented on the evident shortage of material goods but added: “I was more impressed with the positive aspects . . . lack of poverty, decent dress, housing and all basic needs, like medical care, being provided.

“The cities of Leningrad and Moscow were attractive places, filled with purposeful people that do not appear unhappy with their lot,” Malone added.

Meanwhile, a Soviet official said that more Soviet citizens would be traveling to the United States this year under a variety of exchange programs.

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Sergei Zimenko, spokesman for the U.S.-USSR Friendship Society, said 250 Soviet citizens would take part in a Chautauqua, N.Y., program in August, returning a visit to Yurmala, Latvia, made by 250 Americans last year.

Paired Cities Now 24

Since 1984, he added, the number of paired Soviet and American cities has jumped from six to 24, matching Detroit with Minsk, for instance, and Murmansk with Jacksonville, Fla., and Oakland with Nadhodka in the Soviet Far East. Each pair produces a series of exchanges, Zimenko said.

“Now we’re in contact not only with left-wing groups but with mainstream, grass-roots Americans,” he added. “We’re now getting Americans across the (political) spectrum, from left to right.

“We are talking with representatives of the Rand Corp. and the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., as well,” Zimenko added, referring to two American think-tanks. “The interest of American people in visiting the Soviet Union is growing.”

Officials of Intourist, the Soviet agency for foreign tourism, have said that 100,000 Americans visited the Soviet Union in 1985, coincidentally the year that Gorbachev became the nation’s leader.

Figure Rebounding

While this total fell slightly in the aftermath of Chernobyl, it is rebounding and may surpass the 100,000 mark this year, according to Vladimir B. Lebedev, an Intourist spokesman.

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As a result, he added, a prime tourist attraction such as Moscow is almost at the point where it has to turn away additional business because of a shortage of hotel space for foreign guests.

The downtown Metropol hotel, a block-square building in the heart of the city, has been closed for more than a year for remodeling. Another landmark hotel facing Red Square, the National, is about to shut down for a lengthy period of renovation, too.

Four new hotels are under construction, according to Intourist officials, and will increase by 50% the number of hotel beds in the Soviet capital when they are finished in 1990.


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