With vacation options limited, Russians return to Black Sea 'Riviera'

Turkey, Egypt, and other favorite vacation spots are out of reach these days for Russians. But the north coast of the Black Sea, spanning from Crimea to Sochi to Abkhazia, offers an affordable alternative.

Fred Weir
A view of Lake Ritsa in Abkhazia.
Jacob Turcotte

It's a jewel of an alpine lake, set in the soaring Caucasus, surrounded by snow-tipped mountain peaks and with a dacha formerly belonging to Joseph Stalin nestled on its far bank. Lake Ritsa can only be reached via a long, winding road through precipitous mountain ravines, with an ancient hill fortress, rushing rivers, and cascading waterfalls along the way.

With endless miles of mostly empty subtropical Black Sea beaches, the world's deepest caves, untouched mountain trails, mineral hot springs, and churches that date back to the Byzantine Empire, Abkhazia may be one of the world's undiscovered tourist treasures.

But that may be about to change. Abkhazia and the wider swath of subtropical territory in which it lies are suddenly attracting the attention of millions of Russians starved for vacation spots.

With geopolitical crises cutting off once-staple holiday packages to places like Egypt and Turkey, Russia's tourists are now looking to the shores of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, including the recently annexed Crimean peninsula and the booming former Olympic venue of Sochi, as an affordable – and domestic – replacement.

"Beach tourism has always been very popular for Russians. People live in cold, northern places and dream of a sunny seashore getaway," says Galina Romanova, rector of Sochi State University. "Now it's becoming critical to develop this region to serve much larger numbers than we have. About six million Russians vacationed on the Black Sea last summer, but the capacity is much greater. With enough facilities, at least 20 million could comfortably come here."

When the USSR collapsed a quarter century ago, Russians spilled through the former Iron Curtain, eager to discover the outside world. For the middle classes, inexpensive holiday packages to the beach resorts of Egypt and Turkey became the staple summer getaway.

But now, thanks to a perfect storm of reasons, far fewer Russians are able to travel beyond their nation's sphere of influence, and experts say alternatives are desperately needed.

Terrorism in Egypt and a diplomatic freeze with Turkey have virtually ended the Russian summer exodus to those places that was booming just a year ago. The plunging Russian ruble has made foreign travel unaffordable for all but the richest Russians. And, although Soviet-era travel restrictions have not been generally reinstated, the growing rift with the West has led the Kremlin to order increasing numbers of Russians with sensitive government jobs or security clearances to stay home, leaving millions with no option but to find a domestic (or Russia-friendly) holiday destination.

The Olympic site

Perhaps the most obvious replacement destination is Sochi, a region already known for its tourist attractions before it saw a huge influx of investment for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Now it has scores of new hotels and renovated health spas, and a whole new system of transport links. The Olympics also created a cluster of mountain resorts that attract New Year's crowds for skiing and, experts insist, large numbers for year-round alpine recreation.

"This is a marvelous place where you can stay in a mountain resort and go hiking amid snow-capped peaks in the morning, then take a 30-minute bus ride and be sunbathing on a subtropical beach in the afternoon," says Ms. Romanova. "Thanks to the ruble [devaluation], all these facilities around Sochi are now extremely competitive for Russians." She says the Sochi area received around 3 million visitors in 2013, more than 5 million in 2015, and is expecting at least 6 million this year.

Arsen Sadatierov, a local businessman, says he'd like to see Sochi developed as a destination for Russia's wealthier tourists. It already has many of the needed features, including 5-star hotels, a new seaport full of yachts, nearby mountain resorts, and quite a few luxury health spas.

"Let the poorer tourists go to Crimea, or Abkhazia, but Sochi can be for the more upscale crowd," he says. "However, there's still a lot to be done. Our beaches are terrible, and the seaside promenade lacks attractions for wealthy people. Our mayor wants to tear down all those cheap hotels and commercial properties, and remake our seafront. But it will take some time; there's a lot of resistance from the present owners."

A vacation destination in flux

Across the Black Sea to the west, Crimea, once the main vacation playground for both czarist and Soviet elites, is quickly rebounding, experts say. That's despite the loss of almost all its former Ukrainian summer clientele, and critical transport bottlenecks that make it difficult for Russians, eager to rediscover their newly acquired province, to reach.

"No matter what your political views concerning Crimea may be, the fact is that Russians are scrambling to get there, to see the new place," says Sergei Romashkin, director of the Moscow-based Delphin tourist agency. "The numbers visiting last year were about 6 million, or the same as in 2013, before the crisis. We never expected it to bounce back so quickly."

Tourists can presently reach Crimea from mainland Russia only by air, or via a single ferry that runs from Russia across the 3-mile-wide Kerch Strait. War in eastern Ukraine precludes the traditional train and automobile routes for Russian vacationers. But a road-and-rail bridge ordered by the Kremlin and dubbed "Putin's bridge," is being constructed at breakneck speed and will be the longest bridge in Europe when it's finished by the end of 2018.

"There's a lot of investment going into Crimea right now, both state and private, and it's going to be a very transformed place within a few years. The main thing is to get that bridge operating; that will be a real game-changer," says Yury Putrik, vice president of Russia's National Academy of Tourism.

Off the beaten track

Abkhazia, a de facto independent state since Russia recognized it in the wake of a 2008 war with Georgia, may be the odd region out in the Black Sea region.

On one hand, the breakaway Georgian territory seems an ideal destination for Russian tourists. Russian is universally spoken, rubles are the official currency, and Russians get visa-free entry. Though luxury accommodation is almost nonexistent, people are friendly, two- and three-star hotels are abundant, and spicy Caucasian meals served in terraced restaurants are incredibly cheap. Best of all, it's really quite easy to get to – if you happen to be a Russian.

Nearly 1.5 million Russians visited Abkhazia last year, and the little country's minister of tourism, Avtandil Gartzkia, says they expect a third more this year.

"We're focused on the budget traveler," he says. "Rich people won't come here." Nor will many non-Russian foreigners, who are deterred by Abkhazia's "twilight zone" diplomatic status, and Georgia's threat to prosecute anyone who "illegally" enters what it regards as its sovereign territory. According to the Abkhaz foreign ministry, just 15 visas were issued to Americans in all of 2015.

But Abkhazia seems likely to remain on the fringes of Russia's coming Black Sea tourism boom. The Abkhazian parliament recently shelved a bill that would permit foreign ownership of property, which precludes Russians from moving in and buying up the scores of war-ravaged former Soviet sanitariums and beach resorts that line the little statelet's seacoast. For now, the only source of private investment is the Abkhazian diaspora, mainly in Turkey, who build the small hotels and restaurants that make the place such a bargain for low-end Russian travelers.

The Black Sea's limits

Abkhazia isn't the only part of the Black Sea coast of limited appeal to Russian tourists. Little has been done to expand or upgrade the coast that stretches several hundred miles north of Sochi along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Though the span includes several places that were popular in Soviet times, today them seem dowdy, expensive, and lacking in standards to today's middle-class Russians, who are used to vacationing in the well developed, all-inclusive resorts of Turkey and Egypt.

And some travel experts warn that, despite big potential for growth in the Russian Black Sea area, natural limitations will prevent it from ever replacing the zones that Russian tourists have grown accustomed to.

"For one thing, high season in the Black Sea lasts barely 100 days. Despite the traditional health spas, and construction of some winter resorts around Sochi, there's just not enough for tourists to do for most of the year," says Dmitry Bogdanov, a Sochi-based travel consultant.

"For another thing, the teeming millions of Russians yearning for a beach vacation simply cannot be accommodated in the Black Sea area, even if there is a lot of new development. It's just not big enough. So, let's pray that the economy and international relations improve, so that Russian tourists can regain the choices they had until not long ago," he says.

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