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Belka Tours brings Russian tourists to CNMI

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Business Journal, May 24, 2010) – Pending the release of its occupation permit, Satcha Co. Ltd. will open its new office on Saipan in June.

Alexander Vekhov, president, Belka Tours and Speedy Tertle, told the Journal that the three-story black edifice at the corner of Quartermaster Road and Beach Road should have opened two months ago but delays caused by the shortage of some construction materials pushed back their opening date.

Handled by FGC Construction, the construction of Vekhov’s office began one and a-half years ago on the 2,500-square-meter property, which Vekhov said is under a 55-year lease secured four years ago. He told the Journal he has spent close to US$1 million, on the new building and that costs accumulated because of the delays. Vekhov said that despite the economy, he saw various projects being done on island and he believes the economy will improve.

Vekhov’s Belka Tours brings in the majority of the Russian tourists coming to the Northern Mariana Islands. Although there are other tour operators in Russia that deal directly with the NMI hotels, Vekhov’s company operates in the far east region of Russia.

The retired Russian navy officer has been in the NMI for 15 years and has invested in the economy. The Vladivostok native has a US$4 million dive shop and tour company in Russia, and first came to Saipan as a tourist and then later invested in the nowclosed Stingray Divers Shop. With the demise of the shop, Vekhov decided to launch his own company in 2004 and started renting space in Garapan.

Four years ago he was convinced to lease a property for his offices.

Vladivostok is closer to Saipan and Guam and he said a majority of the tourists from the far east region prefer to visit Saipan over other Asian destinations due to the shorter travel time.

Year over year, Vekhov said Belka Tours experiences a 100 percent increase in Russian tourist arrivals. However, Russian arrival numbers dipped at the height of the federalization issue prior to November 2009. With the Russian visa waiver confirmed, Vekhov said the numbers went back to previous levels again.

He also said if the federal government decides to require visas for Russian tourists, he believes the Russian tourist market will experience a steep decline, dropping 70 percent "or maybe more."

With the visa waiver, Vekhov said the NMI is in a good position compared to Guam. He said the NMI gets 95 percent to 98 percent of Russian tourists to the region and about 3 percent go to Guam.

Belka Tours and his dive shop Speedy Tertle employ eight workers while his construction company, Green Hill Estate on Mt. Tapochau, has two employees.

Vekhov also told the Journal that he’s leasing an aircraft to Star Marianas Air which operates a charter service from Saipan to Tinian.

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