Russia plans ski resorts on slopes of Caucasus
For any Russian worth his caviar there is only one place to be seen in winter.
Alpine resorts such as Courchevel are a magnet for fur-hatted men and women in Chanel ski suits, its pistes signposted in Cyrillic script and its boutiques offering wealthy oligarchs must-have diamond-encrusted skis.
But now an ambitious consortium of developers is hoping to lure Russian and European skiers to a new winter playground – far from the softly twinkling lights of traditional Alpine villages.
They are to construct a cluster of five ski resorts in the war-torn North Caucasus, stretching across southern Russia from the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east, and challenging the widely-held belief that the area is dangerous and out of bounds. The planners also want to upgrade Mineralnye Vody airport for international flights, putting it within four hours' flying time of Britain.
The five resorts – Lagonaki, Arkhyz, Mount Elbrus, Mamison and Matlas – will be strung out across a mountain range which has seen fierce fighting with Georgia, given refuge to Islamic militants, and been plagued by regular kidnappings, bombings and murders.
Yet this week in the picture-postcard Swiss ski resort of Davos, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will formally unveil the plan for the network of ski resorts, named Peak 5642 after Mt Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus at 18,442ft (5,642 metres) – some 2,660 higher than Alps' Mont Blanc.
From among the world's most powerful financiers and politicians at the World Economic Forum, Mr Medvedev hopes to drum up international partners for the $15bn scheme, which experts have described as bold at best and, at worst, impossible.
"This is the Caucasus and it's perceived as a war zone so anything like this is tricky," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at investment bank Uralsib Capital, based in Moscow. "If you try to raise the profile of the Caucasus by bringing in more tourists there's all the more incentive for terrorists to intensify their campaign."
Supporters of the project say that the beauty of the region and the quality of its snow is undisputed, and believe its ski slopes could rival those of the Alps. The area benefits from longer winters than the rest of Europe, and its scope for high-altitude glacier skiing will further prolong the season.
It can boast pristine peaks and hundreds of miles of virgin powder, where adventure travel companies currently offer heli-skiing trips. But those who organise such tours to the region are sceptical about the potential for mass tourism.
Gia Ksnelashvili, the Caucasus mountain guide for a St Petersburg travel company, said that while the Mt Elbrus area was safe for tourists, he would not at present take groups to the other areas.
"I wouldn't say Dagestan is the best place right now," he said. "There is no infrastructure at all, no hotels, and it's not safe. While Elbrus is well known to climbers and tourists, other regions do not have that safe reputation. It will take a lot of advertising to convince people to go there."
James Morland, owner of heli-skiing tour operator Elemental Adventure, said: "It's an extremely bold plan, and sounds unbelievably ambitious. Advice about travel to the region is often overly cautious, but it's a tough place – certainly no Courchevel.
"It has amazing potential, but if I was a Western investor I'd certainly not be risking my money in building there."
The Northern Caucasus Resorts company – the state enterprise in charge of implementing the project – claims that Peak 5642 will attract a wide range of skiers, from beginners to experts. It also promises that Russia's complex visa procedures will be streamlined to make it easier for European skiers.
Juri Karpenko, the company's deputy director general, says that while it may be a struggle to convince Russia's wealthiest oligarchs to abandon the Alps, it should be possible to attract new skiers from the country's 140 million population – only 2 per cent of whom currently ski, as well as other Europeans.
Under the plan, the first skiers will take to the pistes in the resort of Arkhyz in March next year, although it will not be fully open until 2014. Arkhyz will be the biggest of the five resorts, with 270km of pistes spread over three villages – more than Courchevel's 150km of runs.
And he dismisses concern over security, saying that the Islamic militant strongholds of Chechnya and Ingushetia may later join the scheme.
"Chechnya at the moment is one of the most secure regions in the area. They have great order there," he said during the London leg of a Europe-wide promotional tour.
"Actually it's very safe in the area, and I've never felt unsafe. Neither have our international partners, and climbers come to Elbrus from all over the world. It's an image issue. But we have all the information and tools to fight this."
He faces an uphill struggle, however. Last week two policemen were shot dead in the region designated for the resort of Mamison. The Foreign Office warns against all travel to Dagestan (where the resort of Matlas is located), and all but essential travel to an area that includes three of the four remaining resorts. "Terrorism and kidnapping in these regions remain a serious risk," says the Foreign Office website.
Mr Karpenko refuses to be discouraged.
He cites the example of Tel Aviv, where people have learnt to survive in a tense area, and says that the government will protect the tourists, even if that means deploying metal detectors on ski lifts and fencing off the resorts.
"If the situation looks like it is necessary to take those actions, then we will do that. Clearly at the moment there is no need for bigger protection."
The team behind the Peak 5642 project is led by Akhmed Bilalov, a Dagestani Muslim who plans also to market the resort to the Middle East, North Africa and other Arab-speaking countries.
Flying times from the Middle East are several hours shorter than to the Alps, and four of the five areas are Muslim republics. Matlas in Dagestan already has a mosque in the heart of the proposed area.
"It's really comfortable for a Muslim person who has money to travel to a resort that has a mosque," he explained. "He'll feel at home.
"Religion is important to the local people and they are proud of that. No one is taking it away from that.
"It's not a ski resort only for Muslims. And as for drinking and things, in my opinion, they enjoy the après-ski as well as everyone else. They don't feel separate even if they are not drinking in the bars."
Right now most of the proposed resorts boast little more than a cluster of farmhouses, where impoverished Russians eke out a meagre living through farming. The locals may be swathed in fur and shawls, but they haven't been purchased in Bond Street, and skiing involves a lung-bursting hike up the mountain rather than a glide in a heated gondola.
"Scepticism exists, and it also exists in Russia," admits Mr Karpenko. "But take your guide, go to the area, spend two to three days, and your attitude will change.
"After you have met the people, they will take you to their homes and give you nice food. You'll feel their hospitality, and the warmth of their hearts. You close your eyes, open them again, and see the beautiful nature all around you. Then you'll forget the news."