Amusement via armaments


KIEV, Ukraine - Some travel agencies think in terms of the Tuscan countryside and the charming English village, perhaps an Alaskan cruise. The Alaris Co. thinks of missiles.

As world leaders announced a $20 billion project to dismantle weapons in the former Soviet Union not long ago, Alaris presented its "Hot Spots of the Cold War" package, including a tour of an old missile launching complex. It's the latest military tourism endeavor by Alaris, which has already offered flights on fighter planes, romps in tanks and the chance to fire rifles.

If these ventures suggest the allure of Cold War machinery, they also reflect the economic calamity that has befallen the former Soviet republics since the Cold War ended and the union broke up. Where once there stood a lavishly financed Soviet armed force, an array of troops is left impoverished.

The Ukrainian military hasn't had enough fuel for tanks, food for troops or money for practice maneuvers in years, but this country is not alone in trying to recoup some of the old Soviet investment by exploiting the amusement-park potential of terrifying weapons.

Former Soviet countries "will do anything to survive," says Tierry Lamborion, who works in Ukraine on a European Union program devoted to finding jobs for former military officers. He's working with Alaris on the "Hot Spots" venture.

Before moving to Ukraine, Lamborion worked in Russia, where the military wanted to create a game of bumper cars using tanks. When they asked for help, he refused.

"You have to draw the line somewhere," he says.

Real bullets, real bombs

Such niceties have not stopped Alaris, in cooperation with Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, from carving out a niche in the travel world. Visiting military enthusiasts may choose from an array of possibilities depending on the range of their interests and wallets.

If you don't have the 11 grand for a 30-minute ride on an Su-27UB fighter plane, perhaps you would like to fire a grenade launcher for $180, or shoot a Kalashnikov for $8.

Everything is real, even the bullets.

Alaris is owned by Grygoriy Zhorov, a former Ukrainian soldier who left the forces a decade ago, frustrated by the lack of money for training. He maintains his short military haircut and clipped speech, and now he's working with the military again, arranging tours of some previously hidden corners of the Cold War landscape.

The "Hot Spots of the Cold War" tour covers a nearly 300-mile swath from the south-central region to Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea.

On a dry, flat expanse at Pervomaisk, visitors can see a compound where a cluster of 10 SS-24 Scalpel missiles once were kept at the ready. The missiles are gone, the site has been dismantled, but there's a firing pad, launching silo and command post.

Farther south in Crimea, in the city of Sevastopol, the tour continues with a spot where dolphins had been trained for warfare, a coast defense fortification and what is believed to be the world's only underwater submarine repair shop.

The dark, dank tunnels of the sub repair complex were built into hollow rock in the 1950s by the same men who built the Moscow subway. Grand in the way only the decaying remnants of a great former military power can be, the complex once housed 10 submarines.

An impish boy whose father used to work there offers a tour for one dollar. Hundreds of feet of tunnel, buried submarines and Lenin mottos etched on the walls are all part of the tour.

Alaris' Crimean representative, Valery Sadovnichenko, says he can also offer trips on working naval ships, airplanes and tanks. He figures the mystery surrounding once clandestine sites will entice customers. Words such as "top secret," "spy" and "glory" figure prominently in Alaris brochures.

Tour customers are mostly men, usually middle-aged and from Western countries. They're children of the Cold War who grew up hearing about Russian spies, watching James Bond movies and crouching under school desks in nuclear attack drills.

The most popular attraction of the moment is a 30-minute flight on a MiG-29 fighter. The price for that was recently raised to $8,500.

'Defining experience'

Canadian graduate student Andrew Pavacic paid the old fee, $6,235, last fall. He says it was worth the money to fulfill what he describes as a long-held dream of flying in a MiG-29. For that sum, he acted as co-pilot for 30 minutes while a pilot did the actual flying. Pavacic calls it "the defining experience of his life.

"From start to finish, you're doing things most people only imagine in passing. You're seeing real things which before, you only read in books," Pavacic wrote in an e-mail.

Yes, real enough to hurt. Before you can get into a plane, Alaris requires proof of insurance and a medical examination. The travel agency says the only accident this summer occurred when Australian author Earl Wilkinson injured his lips while launching a grenade.

No injuries were reported by the Austrian father and son who visited this summer and spent two days flying planes, nor by the Australian who visited for almost a week. The toll in that case was only financial, as they spent thousands flying planes, much of which Alaris pays to the military.

That's good news in hard times. A summer air show accident that left 85 dead is being blamed on an under-financed military that cannot afford to provide its pilots with adequate flight time.

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