Inside lines

arnie wilson/from the alps

Life is full of ironies. In the same year that the Alps – and even Scotland – enjoyed the best snow for a quarter of a century, the credit crunch has taken a deep bite out of British chalet tour operators. Unlike tour companies, whose business is hotel based, those which specialise in chalet holidays have to commit in advance to something like full occupancy to reimburse the people who actually own the chalets. At least six British chalet tour operators look like going out of business owing to lack of custom caused by the economic downturn.

Who knows what the European winter scenario will be like in five years time, but the current crisis is a world away from a ski region on the fringes of eastern Europe and Asia Minor – Sochi, the unlikely location for the 2014 Winter Olympics, when the alpine events will be largely staged in the resorts clustered around Krasnaya Polyana.

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Sochi is on the same latitude as Nice, in the south of France, and seems very warm after Moscow – caressed by what the Americans might well call a “pineapple wind”.

Yet on the not so distant horizon, the snow-capped beginnings of the Caucasus – home to the “mountain cluster” of the 2014 Winter Games – rear skywards. There will be 19 Olympic venues altogether.

The extensive palm-fronded coastal strip of Sochi is known as Russia’s “summer capital” – yet it’s just an hour from the snows of the Caucasus. The sprawling but attractive “Riviera” region was once favoured by Stalin and the Tsars before him. The coming Olympics will help the city fathers’ dream of projecting Sochi and the Krasnodar region not just as a summer destination but as a year-round holiday centre.

Sochi, the largest resort region in the Russian Federation, sits among the rolling hillside spreading almost 100 miles along the eastern Black Sea coast in the Krasnodar region. It’s said to be Europe’s longest city.

Outwardly at least, there seems to be little sign of poverty here, although it has been described as a “faded one-time favourite of the Communist elite.” In fact for centuries Sochi has enjoyed continuous wealth creation, unlike many other parts in Russia.

Even Sochi managed shirtsleeve temperatures of 8°C during our visit in late January, the coldest month in the Northern hemisphere winter. The sub-tropical region has an average summer temperature of 26°C and -3°C in winter – you can swim in the sea from April till October. The city’s economy is based on health and leisure tourism: it claims 250 spa facilities. The region has more than 200,000 hectares of forests, with over 30 botanical gardens, parks and wildlife sanctuaries housing more than 30,000 species of plants.

The highest local peak is Chugush at 3238m. Although the traditional Alpica ski area, with some half a dozen primitive chairlifts, has some of the most challenging terrain in the valley, its function in the Sochi Olympics  will be restricted to the bobsleigh and luge events.

Four different ski areas will share the downhill events – including the up-market Gazprom resort, which is effectively Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev’s “personal” ski hill.

Putin's powder run.

In spite of some enjoyable but somewhat bland downhill runs, Mr Putin’s Gazprom resort, opened just a year ago, will just be the location for the cross-country events. Gazprom has designer boutiques, patronised by those who can afford  the most luxurious accommodation in the valley.

The resort village is self-sufficient and even has its own fire brigade. It is strongly rumoured that Rosa Khutor and the Gazprom resorts were “force-financed” by Mr Putin, like an individual tax imposed on certain oligarchs. Many of these oligarchs, of course, now face dramatic changes in their financial status, so who knows whether the new resorts just being built will find their cash flow restricted in the run up to the 2014 games.

Strategically, the most important new area is arguably Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, which will host the main alpine events – including the blue-riband men’s and women’s downhills, as well as the snowboarding and freestyle competitions.

Yet, amongst the traditional element of rural Russian culture, there are people not whole-heartedly behind the Games. Some Krasnaya Polyana locals remain antagonistic towards the coming razzmatazz, believing the environmental upheaval will change their lives for the worse.

But Olympic spokesman, Efim Bitenev, deputy director of the Representative Office of the Organising Committee, said: “I don’t see any danger to the environment – we’re not building on virgin territory here. We’re bringing a gas pipeline in which will be much better than burning coal or wood, and the new railway we’re building will mean fewer cars.”



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arnie wilson/from the alps
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There's a lot to like about ski lifts, and the people who make them.

Life is full of ironies. The Alps got the snow and Russia got the Olympics.

Meet the fashion victims; a whole winter world of them.