Foreign Correspondence is an interview with an authority on a distant place you may want to visit.
Seattle native Doug Grimes, 54, founded MIR in 1987. The tour and travel services company (www.mircorp.com) operates in 35 countries in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Iran.
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: I started playing volleyball when I was young. All through the 1980s, the Soviet Union dominated the sport; I had a dream of playing against them. I did play three times in the Junior Olympics, but all in the U.S. When the Soviet and U.S. Olympic teams came to Seattle for an exhibition match, I took some of the Soviet players on the town and showed them a good time. One of those guys was high up in the trade-union sports committee. “Let’s do an exchange,” he said. Maybe six months later, I got a telex inviting me, and I went there for a couple weeks. Six months later, I took three U.S. teams to four cities there. I then used my organizational logistics formula and contacts to do citizen exchanges – teachers, doctors, clowns, engineers, etc. It was citizens-for-peace effort to get away from the politics.
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Q. Russia and Ukraine began fighting in 2014. Has this affected your business?
A. It hasn’t affected how we plan things, but it affected us as a business. Russia in past years has been our biggest destination, though in the last two years Central Asia and Iran have been growing rapidly. The outlook for this year isn’t very good. Our Siberia trips will do OK – we do a lot of Trans-Siberian Railway. But trips to St. Petersburg and Moscow are not selling well at all.
Q. Does your Ukraine office talk to folks in the Russian office these days?
A. Sure; they’re good friends. We have an annual kind of summit where we all meet, review the previous year and set plans for the coming season. We had the most recent one in Seattle, so they all came over here. There were a few heated discussions. It’s a bit discouraging to see the different viewpoints based on the media they’re exposed to. Russia’s media is now pretty much state-owned; so is Ukraine’s.
Q. What’s the best time to travel to that region?
A. Certainly, when things are stable. Right before 9/11, business was pretty much booming. It has taken time to recover from that. Last year was our biggest as a company, despite the Ukraine-Russia conflict. That’s maybe because it started in spring and most of our clients booked a year before.
The season is very important. The travel season is quite short in Siberia; May as well as September are best for Central Asia. We try to schedule in spring and fall. Summers are too hot: 110 degrees in July in Uzbekistan. But some want to go in winter, even to Siberia: That’s a whole different kind of thing; in winter you go to experience the snow and the troika rides.
Q. How complicated is it to run tours in Eastern Europe and Central Asia?
A. It depends on which country. Visas are still an issue: Many countries still require them, and that’s cumbersome. We try to make that smooth, but at the same time it’s still a barrier. The toughest include Turkmenistan and Iran. Russia is still fairly difficult. Russia has an online visa form now, but it’s super-lengthy. Over there, they always say, “This is what the U.S. makes us do if we want to go to America.”
I supposed if we eased our regulations, they would probably follow suit.
Q. Which country over there is your personal favorite?
A. My favorite is Georgia. It has everything: a unique culture, good food, a tradition of wine making, the Black Sea and the mountains. The people are fantastic.
Q. The easiest place to get around?
A. St. Petersburg is way up there. It’s a very tourism-friendly city with a lot of hotel choices and restaurants. They have little city maps, so people can do things on their own, like visit museums and palaces. Many cruise ships stop there, and an infrastructure has been developed for that.
Q. What destinations do you recommend for a first-timer?
A. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or a combination of those. They’re European and a bit more familiar but still with the legacy of the old Eastern bloc. You can get a taste and understanding of all that. Then jump to western Russia: St. Petersburg, Moscow and the “Golden Ring.”
Q. “Golden Ring?”
A. Just to the north and northeast of Moscow. It’s a series of small towns that form a ring road. There’s a lot of history there – monasteries, churches and cathedrals. It’s also known for handicrafts; the tradition of matryoshka nesting dolls comes from there.
It’s a lot like old Russia; houses are built from logs. Modern Moscow, with its fancy hotels and bad traffic, is a two-hour drive away. To do the whole “Golden Ring” would take five days.