POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 25, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 04:57 p.m. HST, Feb 25, 2014
SOCHI, Russia » As the Olympic circus packs up and flies away from Russia, the Black Sea city of Sochi is looking anxiously toward the future.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors are leaving impressed by the shiny stadiums and hotels, smooth highways and new trains that have transformed a jaded Soviet-era resort into a modern tourist destination.
It has all cost $51 billion, but will it be enough to keep the tourist dollar — or ruble — flooding into Sochi?
Sochi "definitely has a future," IOC President Thomas Bach said on Sunday. He listed all the international events that Sochi will be hosting in coming months — the G8 summit, a Formula One race and World Cup matches in 2018 — and expressed hope that Sochi's legacy will live on.
"What happened here, this transformation really is amazing, and now it will be important to secure the legacy of these games," Bach said.
Ordinary Russians were also impressed.
"We were in the mountain cluster yesterday and we were pleasantly surprised: It looks like a European ski resort," said Irina Mislivets from Togliatti. "I would love to come back."
On the Black Sea north of Georgia, Sochi was a tired seaside resort tailored exclusively for Russians who either could not afford to vacation abroad or were reluctant to leave the country.
Former leader Josef Stalin had a Dacha here and President Vladimir Putin has a holiday home in the area, but lack of investment meant the town was gradually crumbling.
The Olympics brought in billions in investment and international attention to Sochi, while rattling trucks and cement mixers have rumbled through the area day and night for more than five years. In this time, Krasnaya Polyana, a small mountain village, has been transformed into a Swiss-style ski resort with brand-new lifts and international hotels.
Sochi's mountains will definitely see an increase in visitors in the coming year because of the Olympic publicity, says Vladimir Kantorovich, first vice president of the Russian Association of Tour Operators, but its future will only be clear once the first full season is over.
"Ski slopes which are good for sports are not necessarily always good for recreation. You need to go to find out yourself," he said. "How things will go afterwards will depend on prices and conditions."
RUSSIA BUILT 14 venues for the games with a total capacity of 145,000 people.
Plans for how to use the venues are changing all the time. Organizers were originally thinking about converting the Iceberg arena into a cycling track. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak announced on Saturday, however, that authorities have been persuaded to turn it into "an international center for ice shows."
Some of the venues can be taken apart and moved to other cities.
The Audit Chamber, the government's auditing agency, raised concerns about the future of the Olympic venues. Chairman Sergei Stepashin quoted expert estimates that maintaining the venues would cost Russia at least 60 billion rubles a year ($2 billion).
Kozak dismissed Stepashin's estimate, saying that it will cost "at least 10 times less."
Olympic spectators and organizers say Krasnaya Polyana is a potential magnet for tourists. But industry experts are cautious about its long-term prospects.
Russian fans at the Olympic Park this weekend were optimistic about Sochi's future, but all of them complained about prices, saying they are too high compared to other eastern or central European destinations.
"We see that Sochi has changed for the better," Mikhail Savrasov from Latvia, said. "I hope the prices will go down."
Ski resorts in the area reported strong sales in December and January before they were closed for the Olympics, and they say they will adjust prices once life in Sochi gets back to normal.
"From what we've seen so far the interest is huge," said Alexander Belokobylsky, director of Rosa Khutor resort up in Krasnaya Polyana. The company is now looking forward to the next season to see how well they can do when the games are over.
Business and the travel industry experts, however, don't hold out much hope for Sochi as an international destination despite the breath-taking mountains and new hotels.
Unlike most European resorts, Sochi is hard to get to. There are few direct flights to Europe from Sochi, and airport fees at the Sochi Adler airport are too high for low-cost airlines to fly here. And Europeans need to apply for a visa if they want to come to Russia.
"Europeans can travel to most places in the world visa-free: Why would they want to come here if they need to get a visa?" asks Kantorovich.
Belokobylsky of Rosa Khutor recalls praise and admiration he has heard from foreign officials and journalists in the past weeks, but says that getting them to come back here will be difficult.
"We need direct flights," he said. "But these are things we cannot influence."
Nataliya Vasilyeva, Associated Press