Olympics: Sochi pins hopes on viable alpine resort

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia - The Rosa Khutor ski fields and villages cost billion of dollars to construct, but Sochi Olympic officials are confident the resort will be commercially viable after the Games close.

With a brand new infrastructure in place linking a handful of alpine villages from the base at 560 metres up to the snowy summit of Rosa Peak (2,320m), the real challenge starts now with just how to fill the thousands of rooms that will soon be vacated by athletes and media.

In the short- and medium-term, the clientele expected to bring in revenues is definitely Russian, according to Alina Trofimova, editor-in-chief of Russia's leading ski website superski.ru.

The link with Sochi was vital, she told AFP, meaning short flight times within Russia allied with short transfer times from the airport to resort, with Russian tourists requiring no visa, with no language barrier and able to afford accommodation.

"The main market is definitely Russia, upper middle and top market for the Rosa Khutor four and five-star hotels, middle market for apartments and three-star hotels," Trofimova told AFP.

"Rosa Khutor is already a rather popular destination on the market, even if it was closed for almost the whole 2013/14 season because of the Games, but people definitely know about it."

The coastal city of Sochi, which lies just 40km (25 miles) away, is already a popular summer destination among Russians, with millions of tourists flocking to the Black Sea for beach and spa-based holidays - and it is only a two-hour flight from Moscow.

"This will stay a ski resort," insisted Sergey Belikov, the Rosa Khutor alpine resort manager. "The resort is capable of hosting up to 10,000 people per day, and this is a serious figure.

"We are absolutely positive that it will stay commercially viable.

'What will be here after the Olympics?'

"Not everything happens overnight, especially if we take into consideration the sheer scope of investments that were channelled towards building such a massive ski resort as Rosa Khutor." There is no denying that the Rosa Khutor valley base is in an attractive location.

Two wide, pedestrian and lamp-lit embankments line the raging Mzymta river, with bridges at either end of the village that features a mix of modern architecture - albeit sometimes shoddily finished, white peaks all around beyond low-lying forests of stripped birch.

In the extraordinarily balmy weather that has marked the Olympics, the streets have been routinely packed with people window shopping, stopping at chic restaurants or buying aromatic street food, and posing for photos with Cossack policemen.

DJs, headphones around necks, spin bass-heavy dance records at open-air bars adjacent to western-chained hotels, the call of apres-ski seemingly the same wherever you go.

But it does not come cheap, a pint of beer or glass of wine costing up to 450 roubles (nine euros), with a simple pizza setting a diner back 800 roubles.

For Russian slalom specialist Alexander Khoroshilov, who complained he had no fans in his home country because of the lack of coverage of and interest in alpine skiing, there are hopes that training will now take place on home snow.

"What will be here after the Olympics? I hope it will be a downhill training place for us and also for young skiers, and then maybe in five years we get more downhill skiers in the World Cup," he said.

'This is a complex question'

The first Russian International Olympic University has been opened in Sochi with courses built for sport industry managers, meaning an influx of students and snow sportspeople, according to Trofimova.

Resort manager Belikov added: "We are looking at using this particular resort as a sporting platform, however this is a complex question and it needs to be discussed with the skiing federation representatives." Importantly, there have been no concerns over snow, despite just one day of proper of snow in the opening three weeks of February during which the Games were held.

There has remained a base of snow around 200cm, something some Western European resorts could but dream of in recent seasons.

In addition, two 130,000 m3 artificial lakes were built to supply some 140 snow cannons if needs be to keep the 90km of pistes pearly white for the thousands of skiers expected to descend on the western Caucaus.

"For the moment it's a bit early to speak about the influence for the whole market," Trofimova said, adding it was unlikely wealthy Russian ski fanatics would stop travelling to upmarket western European resorts.

"But what I've heard from many Russian guests during the races is 'I want to come back here and ski on the Olympic slopes'."