Friday, 1 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 4- Back to the mountains

Usually there are 5-7000 tourists here. Today there were twenty.

It was our second attempt to reach the Elbrus ski resort in the mountains. We had a different driver, but crammed into the same style of yellow soviet ‘Volga’ taxi. We were stopped in the Elbrus district capital, Turnaus. The policeman demanded 100 roubles (£2) from the driver or said he would do a more detailed check and we would have to take the car's panels off. This time he paid the money. The policeman didn't even do his job and check the car properly.

Again the sun was bright and the mountains stunning. Today there weren't even clouds to mask their peaks. We managed to pass all the other checkpoints. The Elbrus tourist region, I noted, is surprisingly developed, at least on the outside. There are alpine style stone and wooden hotels and chalets. There aren’t so many lift systems but what there are are modern. Again the pistes were few but they looked smooth and well kept. The trouble was it was a ghost resort. The lifts were stopped. The pistes were empty.

On February the 18th this year three tourists had been shot inside their minibus on the their way to the resort by islamic militants. Later the same day they had blown up on the resorts cable car runs. Attacks here are usually on the police or on vocal critics of the militants. These were tourists from Moscow which made the attack unusual and frightening to that industry most vulnerable to securty panics.

They told us there are usually 5-7000 people here in high season. Now there was only 20. Most local stores hadn’t bothered to open. Skiers and ski instructors said it was embarrassing. Not only had the militants managed to bring the entire season to a crashing halt. The army was scaring everyone away and had summarily announced, without a word of warning or consultation that the season was over because of that favourite Russian security service phrase, ‘an anti-terror operation’. Some businessmen had taken out credit to build new hotels of shops. They were likely going to go bankrupt, I was told. The Russian government wants to put money into the Caucasus resorts to help develop the old soviet holiday infrastructure there. But by far its greatest ambitions lie to the west in the black sea city of Sochi and the mountains outside it which will host the 2014 winter Olympics. The aim is make the region an international ski centre, and also to encourage people to get into business instead of joining the militants. For the moment, their local tourism plans are in tatters and everyone is worrying that Sochi is now a prime target in 2014.

Welcome to Elbrus! Locals and the government have had a bad setback in developing what is a beautiful resort.

On the way back we tried to film an army checkpoint but were met with a hail of abuse, apparently the official permissions we had meant nothing here. Local officers had given the order, no photos. When we got talking with one of the soldiers we found he was a good guy. He was bored and cold waiting day after day in the middle of this valley. However he shared the local jealousy that Sochi, hundreds of miles away to the west, was being given all the money and attention for tourism development.

He agreed that the security presence was counterproductive. It may make the resort safer but it just scares people away, strangling local tourist businesses. That night we spoke an FSB officer, trying to gain that elusive permission for photographing the checkpoints. He, not surprisingly, was more upbeat. But even he thought the republic was being held back. He estimated that around 40% of Kabardino-Balkaria was involved in tourism. But it could be 90% if the industry was allowed to grow properly. The risk is that the longer it takes to make the mountains safe, the less tourism industry there will be left for tourists at the end of it.

It seemed the only tourists enjoying the peace and quiet were the cows.

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