Suursaari spherical hotel dreams look to be just that
Hotel planned for the middle of the Gulf of Finland would be world's largest spherical structure
By Jussi Konttinen in St. Petersburg
An ambitious - some might say megalomaniacal - hotel complex planned for the Russian island of Suursaari in the middle of the Gulf of Finland may turn out to be just the large dreams of small regional officials.
The administration of the Leningrad Oblast, the administrative region surrounding (but not including) the federal city of St. Petersburg, which also has jurisdiction over the outer islands in the Baltic, has drafted proposals for a tourist centre on Suursaari.
The signature building for this complex would be a 121-metre-high spherical-shaped hotel, the “Crystal Ball”.
The hotel building would be erected on one of the highest points of the island, at 143 metres above sea-level, and would be visible from the Finnish coastline and the islands off Kotka.
However, the tourist centre is only an investment project declared by the regional administration, and as yet it has no financial backers.
This is a significant drawback for a venture that has an estimated price-tag of at least EUR 1 billion.
It is somewhat unclear why any potential investor would wish to put money into building an expensive ball of the kind envisioned by the officials.
There is another, equally significant objection: the Russian military.
In the new master plan for the area, the island has been zoned for tourism and as a nature conservancy area, but the implementation of any such plans requires the withdrawal of the military personnel - mainly border guards - stationed there.
There have also been reports that Suursaari will be the location for a large radar and air traffic control centre.
If the island remains in miltary use, the Leningrad Oblast officials would like to see the hotel venture moved further east to the smaller Gulf of Finland island of Lavansaari.
Both of these islands belonged to Finland before the Second World War, but were ceded to the Soviet Union twice - after the Winter War in 1940, and again (following their recapture by the Finns) at the end of the Continuation War in 1944. Lavansaari and Suursaari were in fact evacuated en masse prior to the outbreak of the Winter War, and there was bitter fighting on Suursaari on two occasions.
The first battle was in February 1942, when the Finns took it back, and there was a second in September 1944, when the Germans attempted to seize the place, but were rebuffed by Finnish troops (who had by this stage ceased hostilities with the Soviets), backed up by Soviet air support.
The island is now populated mainly by lighthouse staff and their families, weather station personnel, and by Russian frontier guards. There is a marine surveillance radar station. Administratively Suursaari is a part of the Kingiseppsky District, centred on the town of Kingisepp, approximately 140 km west of St. Petersburg and quite close to the Estonian border.
Before World War II, in the 1920s and 1930s, Suursaari had been very different: it was a popular holiday destination for Finns, attracted by a yacht harbour, fine white sand beaches, and even a “casino”, albeit not quite on the Las Vegas scale.
There is now a small hotel on the island, but tourism is restricted by the fact that this is still designated as a military border zone, and special permits are required for visits (see earlier IntEd articles on Suursaari).
In addition to the bureaucracy involved in getting permission, any travellers must also embark from a Russian port, since there is no customs point on the island.
The “Crystal Ball” would be a horse of a very different colour from the modest 30-bed accommodation now offered in a rebuilt barracks.
It would stand 35 storeys tall and would be a 5-star establishment with an aquapark, a concert hall, restaurants, and shops. The views north to the Finnish coastline would be sensational.
The hotel would also find its way into the record books as the world’s largest spherical structure, comfortably overtaking the Globen golf ball sports and concert arena in Stockholm, which has a diameter of 110 metres and an inner height of around 90 metres.
The plans call for a gondola or cablecar arrangement to carry residents up from the shoreline, and a service-tunnel and elevator system.
Also slated for Suursaari is a “Friendship Square” around which would be constructed buildings representing each of the countries bordering on the Baltic Sea.
This would serve as a kind of multinational shopping mall from which to buy souvenirs and national delicacies.
The tourist centre would also benefit from the tunnel systems built by the Soviet soldiers, which could be converted into an underground nightclub.
The regional officials’ plans for Suursaari envisage that American cruise vessels could call in there, as well as Viking Line and Silja Line ferries.
Naturally, one draw of such a stopping-point would be the chance to sell duty-free alcohol and other items.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.1.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
Suursaari opens slowly for tourists (22.5.2006)
Setback for large-scale tourism plans for former Finnish island of Suursaari (30.4.2004)
Suursaari shrugs off its long sleep and prepares for the tourists (21.5.2002)
BACKGROUND: Suursaari was once a Finnish paradise island (21.5.2002)
A map of the Leningrad Oblast. Suursaari, (Gogland in Russian, Högland in Swedish), is shown at the extreme left.
JUSSI KONTTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat