On a recent evening at the Winter Olympics in Russia, Pat O’Meara sat with his wife and two daughters and watched the American Kaitlyn Farrington snag a gold medal in the women’s halfpipe snowboard event.
The O’Mearas, bundled up in the bleachers, cheering loudly, were more than 5,000 miles away from their home in Wilton, Conn., and a rare sight at the Sochi Winter Games — foreign tourists.
The hope is that after the throngs of Olympians left Sochi, travelers like the O’Mearas, and especially their Russian counterparts, will still be drawn to the revamped mountain region and view the once obscure, historic Soviet getaway on the Black Sea as a new destination unto itself — the Park City of Russia.
“It’s been great,” O’Meara said, as his daughters cheered. “We thought it was a good reason to come here and good for the girls to get some world experience.”
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O’Meara, who has attended seven other Olympics, added, “But we knew what we were getting into.”
The Sochi Games were the most expensive Olympics ever staged, a staggering $50 billion or greater price tag to construct a sports Disneyland in a place most North Americans can’t point to on a map.
Much effort has gone into infrastructure and making the area more accessible than before. Aeroflot has regular flights into Sochi’s airport, freshly paved roads connect key points and trains are gleaming, fast and efficient.
Some officials and travel agents worry about the arenas in the Olympic Park in Sochi, which organizers say will offer soccer and Formula One, in addition to shopping, hotels, an amusement park and convention space. But the region’s best bet for tourism happiness may lie in the mountain cluster, Krasnaya Polyana, where Olympic skiing and snowboarding events were staged. With snow conditions that included everything from athletes going down slopes in T-shirts to blinding fog during the Games, it’s unclear how ski and snowboard bums will view what the resort has to offer compared with more established counterparts elsewhere in Europe.
Cocooned by picturesque mountains bedecked with gondolas, Krasnaya Polyana has shops, hotels and bars. During the games, it provided more of an inviting winter getaway vibe than the expansive, concrete Olympic Park, about an hour’s drive down the road or accessible by train.
Prices dropping fast
Five to six nights at the Sochi Games cost $8,000 to $12,000, said Robert Tuchman, president of the travel company Goviva, but that price tag is dropping. Within hours of the closing ceremony, Sochi hotel rates on sites like Kayak.com had plunged, with some rooms available at large hotel names for under $100 a night.
With plenty of European winter getaway options — the Swiss Alps among them — it’s unclear if a trip to Sochi, a town of 350,000 near a region historically considered to be a war zone, would be as appealing as more established destinations.
“The Olympics has a distinct feel,” Tuchman said. “I’m not sure what some of those ski villages will be like later.”
According to Adam Weissenberg, the head of travel, hospitality and leisure at Deloitte & Touche, the Olympics were a showcase for Sochi, but that doesn’t mean the city will become a tourist hot spot.
“Although the area was cast very positively with images of gorgeous mountains ripe for skiers in the winter and beautiful beaches in the summer, getting there isn’t easy because you need a visa to travel to Russia, it’s a long haul to Moscow and then an additional two-hour flight,” he said. “There won’t be a pickup immediately, but since the area is so scenic, and travelers are looking for different experiences, there certainly is long-term potential.”