SOCHI, Russia — On a warm autumn afternoon, skipper Anton Romanov nudged his 23-foot Aquador powerboat out of the relentless roll of the Black Sea and toward the harbor.
Dead ahead lay the busy port of Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Russia’s most popular resort, with its restaurants, shops, five-star hotels, and hawkers doing a surprisingly brisk business selling trips on the pleasure boats lined up along the pier.
Beyond rose the jagged, white-tipped pyramids of the Western Caucasus range, a 45-minute drive away along a river lined with compact settlements, each with more shops, restaurants, and alpine hiking trails reached by ski lifts.
“You have to understand, there was nothing here just a few years ago,” Romanov said, pulling on a cigarette as he sat atop the cabin, legs dangling through the roof hatch, steering with his feet. “And nobody came here in October.”
They come now. Three years after the 2014 Games raised an outcry over the estimated $50 billion price tag, three years after the story of the Kremlin's Olympic folly was subsumed by Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has the all-seasons vacation destination that he promised in Sochi.
Sochi, prized for its subtropical climate and the thermal springs where Joseph Stalin treated his arthritis, was traditionally Russia's most popular summer destination. But it was neither a popular, nor particularly accessible, winter holiday spot before the 2014 Olympics.
“It was a summer resort. The season ended in October, and then you had to wait until the warm weather came back the next year,” said Andrei Ponomarenko, head of the G8 Language School in Sochi. “Now we are truly a year-round resort.”
City officials say Sochi, home to about 500,000 year-round residents, is on track to receive 6.5 million visitors in 2017, the same as in 2016. Hotels along the Black Sea coastline sell out in the summer, and the overflow is picked up by the hotels in the mountains, which provide shuttles to the beaches. The reverse happens in winter, when shoreline hotels offer bargain rates and transportation to the mountains for skiers. Dmitry Bogdanov, a Sochi travel consultant, says some hotels in high season are booked more than two years in advance.
Between seasons, the city hosts hundreds of events, including Formula One racing, singing competitions, festivals and conferences, said Sergei Domorat, head of Sochi's Department of Resorts and Tourism. A recently opened casino just held a poker tournament. The Fisht Stadium, used for the Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, will host matches when the FIFA World Cup is held in Russia next year.
The result, according to a manager of a seaside luxury hotel who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is that the property, filled to near-capacity in the summer, gets enough business in the offseason to average 60 percent occupancy for the year. “It’s enough to make a profit,” the manager said.
In the past year, Domorat said, resort-related activities had pumped $55 million in tax revenue to the regional government. “The expenditures on Olympic construction have been justified,” he said.
It is hard to say exactly what was spent and where it all went. In 2013, opposition politicians published a report saying that Putin's inner circle had made off with $30 billion in what they called "a monstrous scam."
Putin denied that large-scale corruption had taken place, and government assessments of the spending have always attributed the cost to the difficulties of creating the infrastructure for the Games. The most costly item was the rail and roadway link
to the mountains. Earlier, the beaches and the mountains were connected only by a narrow, winding road.
The years-long project to transform Sochi was controversial in other ways, too. Activists said authorities ignored laws that mandated public hearings for construction projects, illegally evicted residents and damaged the environment in their construction efforts. Human rights organizations say that Russian activists protesting the Olympics were unfairly rounded up.
When the Olympics ended, tourism did not take right away. But Russia's ensuing recession, terrorism in Egypt and a diplomatic crisis with Turkey steered Russians away from the tourist destinations that had become popular after the fall of the Soviet Union and toward Sochi.
The government also has done its share, subsidizing tours for state employees and coaxing private companies to organize incentive trips and retreats to Sochi that might once have been held in Europe. Officially sponsored events fill the calendar.
Last month, foreign policy experts and officials were convening at a Sochi mountain hotel complex for a conference attended by Putin. The resort city was hosting more than 25,000 participants in the World Festival of Youth and Students.
One of those participants, Margarita Murzina, a graduate student from St. Petersburg, took advantage of a break in the program to ride a gondola 4,500 feet up a slope where Olympic alpine events were held. The ride itself was worth the trip: The gondola soared over a beech and oak forest of autumn yellows and oranges set beneath the snow-capped peaks. A snowboarding fan who had never been to Sochi, Murzina said she would definitely come back as a tourist.
Others had clearly chosen the season. Nikolai and Lyudmila, a retired couple from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don who declined to provide their last names, said Sochi in October
was a destination close to home where, Nikolai said, "the weather is nice, the service is good and it's not too expensive."
And wealthier Russians? There were plenty at the poker tournament and the foreign policy conference. But would Russians who can afford to be choosy choose Sochi over, say, Italy?
“If they have a choice to go to Italy versus Sochi, I think they will still go for Italy,” the luxury hotel’s manager said. “Sochi is very much alive. A great city to have your holiday. Not on a world level yet, but hard on its way to get there.”
Not all of the changes are positive. While investing in new infrastructure and resort complexes, the government has allowed some of the grand old Soviet-era spas that line a major thoroughfare to the Black Sea to fall into disrepair.
Russia’s new political realities also have affected tourism in an unexpected way. Sochi used to see 30 or so foreign cruise ships per year, Ponomarenko said, and local businesses such as his that cater to foreigners expected the number to grow after the Olympics. But most of the cruises also featured stops in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine.
Now, because of sanctions, European carriers skip Crimea, and that makes the entire cruise route less attractive to tourists, Ponomarenko said. So instead of the expected boom, Sochi sees at most five ships per year.
“I had big plans for those ships,” he said.