Kaliningrad Gearing Up For The FIFA World Cup

Jason White

The tiny enclave of Kaliningrad, strategically positioned between Poland and Lithuania may be home to almost 1 million Russians, but I would hazard a guess that with the exception of Russian nationals, the majority of the world’s population would be hard pressed to recognise its name but its location as well.

All that is about to change. Kaliningrad has been chosen by Russia as one of the key cities to hold 4 group games during the FIFA 2018 World Cup. The potential for over 120,000 additional tourists to travel to the area, in support of their national teams has brought a clarity of thought to the area, and how best able to leverage this opportunity than to showcase this unique and quintessential territory to the world’s watching audience and media.

The Kaliningrad Tourist Minister has been quick to understand this, and therefore create a plan that can deliver a whole array of tourist attractions and activities to not only satisfy football fans, but also family members accompanying their partners.

I visited the enclave to discover what tourist and recreational facilities were being built and developed in addition to augment its historical attractions. Facilities that would not only support their stay next year but would be a platform to launch the city’s attraction and thus bring much anticipated revenue to the enclave by increasing visitor numbers in years to come.

Kaliningrad has a peace and serenity to it. The word ‘quaint’ came to mind having toured the region. I quizzed the Tourist Minister on his determination of delivering such an optimistic tourist infrastructure and activities in a press conference. Yes, Kaliningrad retains its historical tourist attractions, it produces 90% of the world’s amber; mined from a huge and breath-taking quarry that is beyond belief. This area was inhabited by tribes of Old Prussians. The tribes were divided by the rivers Pregolya and Alna. The Teutonic Knights conquered the region and established a monastic state. The architecture of its dachas, buildings and monastery has been clearly influenced by its Prussian and German roots. A debate raged throughout my visit about whether Kaliningrad is part of Russian Europe or European Russian. For me it didn’t really matter because Kaliningrad holds its own identity with a defined expression.

The city has begun to prepare for the upcoming event in 2016 and 2017, and they are beginning to build long walks on the banks of the Pregolia River and its tributaries – which cross the city – to welcome the thousands of fans who will walk along them. Not only are the roads being resurfaced and long and pleasant walks being built on the banks of the river and its tributaries; they are also improving access roads between the winding streets of its old town. New dishes of haute cuisine are being added to the menus of local restaurants.

The Minister also elaborated on the new activities and services he planned to initiate and they include  programs such as a beer mile where people can visit several bars; the name of the next bar only being revealed after they answer a question correctly. Another program would be called ‘night tram’, which will deliver fans to events and activities throughout the night.  A third program will be introduced for couples in love, in connection with taking selfies in different romantic locations of the city.

More than 80 hotels in the capital will welcome thousands of fans, dozens of players and hundreds of journalists and TV channels. The city will be taking advantage of all its tributaries and there are many boats that transport tourists day and night through the calm waters. It is, as it were, a kind of Russian Venice.

But what of the weather? Winters in Kaliningrad are not Russian. The minimum temperature rarely drops below zero and usually ranges between 3ºC and 4ºC. The port is the only Russian port in the Baltic that does not freeze in winter.

And what about the brand-new stadium being built in Kaliningrad to showcase the final games? I was able to tour the stadium. This is a magnificent achievement of modern and innovative engineering which is now almost 80% completed. This means that the stadium will be delivered 6 months before the beginning of the tournament and within budget. This is all a testament to the organizational proficiency of its engineering project management.  The stadium reminded me very much of UK stadiums, and I am therefore convinced that the customer/fan experience throughout the games played will be well received and make for excellent viewing for the fans. Kudos to the Russians for not only designing a beautiful piece of engineering but delivering without so much of a hiccup.

I must add that the challenge with regard to this stadium is what to do with it after the conclusion of the tournament and whether this resource can be utilized effectively.  I was assured by our guides that every effort would be made in finding exhibitors and artists to utilize its potential – we hope it does.

And so, Kaliningrad did not fail in its bid to impress and surprise myself and my fellow journalists invited specially from ‘Big Russia’ to view with our own eyes the beautiful peninsula, beaches, architecture, forts and quarries and tasty cuisine that will make a visit to Kaliningrad even more surprising and enjoyable.

The real challenge not only lies in the Tourist Minister’s desire to put on a world class event for the greatest show on earth, when it arrives in June 2018 together with tourists visiting the region, but the determination and ability of the enclave to continue the momentum throughout the next decade.  Whether that can be achieved remains to be seen. There will be challenges to overcome including visa requirements and travel to the country via Lithuania for Russians travelling by car to be continued to be navigated.

The World Cup will generate many waves reaching outwards to the whole world for 4 weeks next year, when the region will be showcased and marketed.  The challenge is that Kaliningrad embraces this opportunity to add value not only for 2018, but to use it as a launch pad for future prosperity to the region and its people for many years to come.

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