by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, June 28, 2019
If the spectre of "overtourism" has become a familiar one in the last few years, so too have the identities of the places that are deemed to have become afflicted by it. Venice, crowded out by cruise passengers; Dubrovnik, struggling under the epic weight of its Game-of-Thrones-fuelled celebrity; Machu Picchu, "welcoming" more visitors in "retirement" than it ever did during its "working life" as an out-of-town retreat for the Inca emperor.
But if we have come to expect too much and too many in some of the planet's most feted cities and historic sites, it is still a shock to hear that overtourism is now seen as an issue at the lake that stands out as one of the biggest geographical features of Siberia.
And Lake Baikal is certainly big. So big that if you look at a map of Russia, in even hemisphere-wide scale, you can see if with your naked eye - tattooed onto the atlas like a crescent of blue in a vast ocean of green. There it sits, barely 100 miles north of the Mongolian border, a hop (in Far Eastern terms) of about 1,000 miles from the frontier with China - an inland sea somehow dislocated from the broader Pacific; a long, curved abdominal scar on the lower torso of the globe's largest country.
Several noteworthy facts underpin its considerable enormity: Lake Baikal is the world's biggest freshwater lake by volume. It is also the world's deepest, plunging to a maximum depth of 5,387ft (1,642m). Research by the United States Geological Survey in 2012 suggested that it may even be the oldest, dialling back its story by some 30 million years. And although it is only the planet's sixth largest freshwater lake by surface area - eclipsed by each of the American trio of Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan - it contains more liquid than the entire Great Lakes system. It is colossal, stretching out to 395 miles at maximum length, and to 49 miles at broadest width. If it were a country, it would be the globe's 136th largest - bigger than Belgium, marginally smaller than Moldova. At 12,248 square miles in area, it is bigger, individually, than each of Armenia, Albania, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Rwanda, El Salvador, and Israel. It has been listed a Unesco World Heritage site since 1996, hailed by the planet's geographical and cultural guardian as "the 'Galapagos of Russia', [whose] age and isolation have produced one of the world's richest and most unusual freshwater faunas."
Such statistics should, you may think, shield Lake Baikal from the modern threat of overtourism. There should be, you might assume, enough of it to go around - particularly if you factor in its relative inaccessibility in a portion of the planet that is both tricky to reach by either air or road - and defiantly frozen for around half the year.
But its reoccurring coldness is part of the problem. It pulled in 1.6m people between the January and August of last year alone. Many of these tourists were attracted to the hard layer of ice - up to 1.5m thick in mid-winter - which coats Lake Baikal between January and April. Tourists come in numbers, not just to pose for photos next to icicle-clad cliffs and ground-to-sky vistas of ghostly white, but to take a drive across a surface that is stong enough to support most vehicles. The insistent urgent roar of snowmobiles is rarely out of earshot when tourist season is in full flow.
And this has helped to trigger something of a rethink in Moscow - a change of tack that could lead to a cap on visitor numbers. "We'll have to artificially limit the flow of tourists to Baikal, as sad as it sounds... to preserve its unique nature and purity," Sergei Ivanov - an aide to Vladimir Putin on environmental issues - said on Tuesday.
In some ways, this is more than a little rich. If there is a growing pollution problem at Lake Baikal - an official from the Russian Academy of Sciences raised eyebrows this week by saying that Baikal's water has become undrinkable - then part of the blame can be directed towards the Putin administration. You cannot blame the current regime in Moscow for the paper mill which sprouted on the lake's shore, in the town of Baykalsk, in 1966 - and belched chlorine and other chemical wastes into the lake for almost half a century. But you can certainly point fingers at the Kremlin for the legislative changes which allowed it to reopen in 2010, two years after it had closed due to unprofitability.
However, local issues run deeper than the side-effects of paper production. Tourism is biting via the widespread construction of hotels - many of them without proper sewage systems or waste facilities - which have been appearing along the shore. In part, these new properties are there to serve the growing Chinese tourism industry - although no one nation is at fault for the surge (of those 1.6m visitors to the lake in the first half of 2018, only 300,000 were foreigners). And the rubbish piling up on Baikal's banks is without nationality. There are "tons of garbage lying on the shore", Ivanov complained this week, adding that the new hotels also have no plan for what happens to its guests' human waste, remarking that "all of it is going into Baikal." The situation is not pretty.
Will anything happen? The Putin regime has hardly shown itself averse to turning a deaf ear to matters which do not suit its agenda, and the president himself is largely impervious to protest. But the Kremlin has also taken recent action when it comes to Lake Baikal. In March, construction on a Chinese bottling plant - in Kultuk, at the south-west tip of the lake - was halted amid environmental concerns and reported political pressure from Moscow brought to bear on the Siberian authorities. The plant was supposed to convey 190m litres of water a year to the Chinese market, but evidence of an oil spill and other industrial damage, uncovered during a site inspection, saw the non-negotiable downing of tools. Whether this will translate to a wider focus on maintaining what was once considered the world's largest source of clean water remains to be seen, but Russia is at least making the right noises - for now.