I drag myself off the tarmac into the newly built Sochi airport. Its not my first peak under the Iron Curtain, but my first visit to the Motherland itself. I slink through customs, with some help from locals. This is far from the push and shove welcome I was told to expect. Absent are the traffic jams that allegedly clog the main arteries of Sochi daily. Although it is 2 a.m.
Some quick research reveals a tropical city of great potential. According to the RT Network’s James Brown, “For decades Sochi has been Russia’s favorite seaside resort. Tourists flock to the beaches here every summer and new hotels are popping up all over the place to cope with the expected increase in demand.” The city boasted as Europe’s longest, is named after the Sochi river, or “stinky river” as the locals call it.
Venturing out the next morning, my guide for the day, Valeria, points out one of two new massive highway construction projects. The “most expensive road in Russia” as she calls it has more potholes than the moon. With Sochi game’s budget past 5 times what was spent on the Vancouver games, I wonder how far 10 billion dollars goes in Russia.
Greenpeace is not a fan. The other billion dollar piece of pavement construction bores through pristine wilderness, and only a stone’s throw from some endangered bat caves. Poor critters haven’t been able to get any shuteye since groundbreaking. Fazed by the treatment of Pussy Riot, all the environmentalists can manage is a piddly letter campaign.
I’ve made contact with Sasha and Sasha, the couple so nice, they named them twice. These two local engineers working on the project support the games and claim they only have jobs because of the Olympics. They boast of construction feats that Canadian SNC Lavalin engineers, hired to provide guidance, told them couldn’t be done. As for the environment, a rare worm migration route is used as a shining example. Workers count them squirming out of the ground and the project team pays compensation based on the numbers. Well, at least I know some of the billions are being spent well.
I head for Sochi’s tourist hot spots with Sveta, a Russian Ex-pat now living in Vancouver. We try Riviera Park, which is a hive of activity. We take our first stab at sampling Sochi’s culinary makings at a restaurant here. Eying the menu, a rather blunt waitress recommends against the pizza as it is “frozen” and against chicken fillet as it would take a long time. This City would keep Gordon Ramsey busy for years.
We make for the beach, hoping to get a better welcome there. Sveta describes barhopping along Sochi’s beach until the wee hours of the morning before going to sleep under the stars on one of the many public loungers. That was the Sochi of only five years ago. Most of the beaches, formerly all public, have now been taken over by private enterprises. The few tourists that do make an appearance head for one of only three remaining public areas. The Sochi beach before me has less going for it than Tim Tebow’s football career.
I sit down with my guide at Cafe Del Mar hoping to get some answers out of her. What happened? Where is everyone? Who let the dogs out? A hopeful answer, it turns out, is that this is only a temporary lull, brought on by the inconveniences of a City under construction. A far more compelling argument, however, is this was a long time in coming.
Back in the Soviet days, under stricter rule, Russians were only allowed to vacation within their country. With Sochi being the only tropical place in Russia, many people turned to the Black Sea resort as their top tourist destination.With success and little competition, came high prices, substandard service and a certain kind of arrogance. With Russia opening its borders more and more, Sochi’s reputation only got worse. These days, with all inclusive trips to Egypt costing a fraction of a trip to Sochi, the tourist flow ebbed, and then dried up.
A pile-driver working out at sea disturbs our conversation. The waitress tells us its the new beach. Huh? Yes, the new beach, that’s where they’re building the new beach. Right. A quick Google search reveals an exorbitant plan to spend 12 billion dollars on building a new island to house luxury hotels, cultural centres and leisure facilities. Of course, the locals have a different story. The billions of dollars were spent before a single grain of sand was dropped. Down to just 4 billion dollars in their coffers, the developers have set their sights a little lower. They’ll just nudge the coast out a wee bit. Public consultation has been non-existent, with nearby businesses that will be devastated by their beach no longer having a sea next to it are completely in the dark. Move a little sand here, a little sand there, and presto, a new beach and a whole swath of new land for hotels!
Moving coastlines isn’t the only bizarre thing I can see. To the north an ancient tree stump sits in the middle of a concrete sidewalk. “Why remove it when you can pave around it?” my companion asks. Just out to sea, crews are working on removing two halves of a Turkish ship that ran aground. It crashed over a year ago. Not to worry, if the new shore gets built before they’re done, they can just pave around it.
I ask Sveta and others I meet how else these games have affected the people so far. Aside from the odd positive response from people such as Sasha and Sasha due to their increased job prospects, the answers is more often than not, negative. One common source of antagonism is the olympic village and venues. Apartment buildings were leveled to make way for their construction, and residents kicked out against their will. Residents who had their residences registered with police were given a small amount of compensation. Homeowners not registered were not so lucky.
With stories of police corruption, it is no wonder people have avoided registering their purchases. One such story has a man visiting the police station to register his land. He is immediately welcomed into the back alley by a couple of law enforcement officers, where he is kindly informed that they won’t imprison him, just as long as he gives them his new purchase. Rudely rejecting their polite offer, the man languishes in prison for months before he is able to sell his land to pay the judge to release him.
In my short time visiting I’ve learned the Sochi Olympic slogan, “Hot, cool, yours” clearly refers to Sochi’s weather, local’s attitudes towards the Olympics, and possession of anything if you pay enough. Jean-Claude Killy, former Olympic 3-time Olympic alpine ski champion had this to say, “the benefits of having had the games will be there forever.” The same is true for drawbacks. Time will tell.