SOCHI, Russia— Giant magnolia flowers cover the trees along the tranquil streets and a fresh breeze from the sea moves the tops of old cypress and palm alleys in the parks. At sunset, SUPs and sailing boats take off into the pink sea. Sochi has long been the best summer destination for generations of Russians. There is hardly a better place to spend the pandemic than in its sub-tropical gardens tucked away between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea.
This year the Russian Miami expected 200,000 tourists—more than in the pre-COVID-19 era—but an unexpected new rule changed the situation overnight.
Starting from July 1, authorities begin to demand vaccine certificates from visitors in the region and by August 1 only vaccinated tourists will be allowed to check into local hotels and health resorts. This emergency measure is necessary to slow down the new wave of the pandemic, authorities say.
The majority of Russians still feel skeptical about the Sputnik vaccine and it seems they would rather spend summer in stuffy Moscow, breathing smoke from burning wood and risk getting COVID-19 than get vaccinated. Considering that only 11.5 percent of Russians have been fully vaccinated, the new requirement is a catastrophe for Sochi’s economy.
Hotels have informed aviation companies that they will not check in any flight attendants and pilots without PCR tests or vaccination certificates. That is going to cause a 50 percent cut in all flights to the Russian Black Sea resorts, news agencies reported on Tuesday.
Tourist companies are panicking—tens of thousands of visitors coming to Sochi would not be able to stay at local hotels. “It basically means the end of the tourist season, we are actually giving Russian tourists away to other destinations, pushing them to travel abroad,” Ilya Umansky, general director of the National Operator ALEAN, complained in an interview for a local news website.
In fact, Russians are currently welcomed in Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Greece, the U.S., and more than a dozen other countries with just a valid PCR test. “To be fully vaccinated and travel in August with a vaccination certificate, one needs to be vaccinated at the end of June—beginning of July. And this is difficult, there are queues after the activation of the vaccination campaign,” he said.
As a result of that mass fright, Sochi feels like heaven. On Monday morning I rented a SUP at the municipal beach Zarya for $7 per hour to paddle along the coast. It was striking to see public and so-called “wild” beaches filled with crowds and deserted beaches at some private and state hotels. Only one man was splashing in the sea on the beach at the Iskra, the health resort of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Sochi is terrified after hearing news from Moscow, where most cafes and restaurants reported a 90 percent drop in the number of visitors—the capital has simply stopped eating out this week.
If business owners are worried about their incomes, ordinary Sochi residents would be happy to see fewer visitors this summer and stop suffering from traffic jams and crowded public transport. As a Russian saying goes: There was no happiness but unhappiness helped us.
“We don’t remember cleaner seas than during the pandemic. I hope less tourists come here this summer—we are especially afraid of visitors bringing COVID-19 from St. Petersburg and Moscow,” a local artist Valery Rubtsov told The Daily Beast. “We have poor medical service and our public officials lie about the number of new COVID cases; it cannot be just 10 a day.”
Russia registered a record number of COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday: 635 people died in one day. In spite of the spreading virus, very few people wear face masks in Sochi, even on crowded buses, as if nobody wants to think of sad news under green palm trees and immense pink oleander bushes.
“Many people are still pessimistic about the virus, they would rather believe in myths about injected chips than effectiveness of the vaccine; one of my clients says, that metal objects stick to the spot, where they inject Sputnik,” Yana, a hairdresser at the Mr. Act beauty salon, told me on Monday. “Look, when I am sweaty, metal things can stick to my body without any vaccines,” she laughed.
For decades, even during the Soviet era, Sochi was an international resort full of foreign tourists from all over the Socialist bloc and Moscow’s ally countries. Foreign languages could be heard on the fancy city embankment, around the spectacular sea port, in the parks surrounding Intourist, Kamelia, Chaika and other resorts welcoming foreign visitors.
For decades Sochi was offering factory workers and the Communist elite health programs to beat off aging; hard-working people from all over USSR felt revived, after a couple weeks of drinking mineral water, breathing mountain air, swimming in the sea, and taking sulfur baths at the local Matsesta springs.
In the past three decades the city has completely transformed and enlarged its population by more than 500,000 people. New apartment blocks, five-star hotels, highways and stadiums emerged along the coast. Sochi Winter Olympics 2018 welcomed 4 million visitors from all over the world.
But the situation has dramatically changed in the past few years. Hardly any other language but Russian can be heard in Sochi these days. Most of the oldest sanatoriums and spa hotels including Metalurg and Zarya, once available for both visitors and locals, do not allow pedestrians to walk through their gorgeous shadowy gardens. Old timers complain about restrictions, fences and checkpoints on every corner.
These days there is a huge concern that one of Sochi’s most popular destinations—the abandoned Soviet Versailles, the Ordzhonikidze sanatorium—would soon be shut down for the public, too. The Kremlin’s administration took over Ordzhonikidze, the people’s favorite spot, during the pandemic. There are plans to build another fence and put more checkpoints around it to stop crowds from coming in for photo sessions.
There are always ways around any restrictions in Russia, tourists hope. At the moment security guards, at least at public beaches, do not request any PCR tests or vaccine certificates. There are many private apartments available and the rental prices are rising. “It is unclear yet how we are going to register new visitors with their QR codes,” a receptionist at Green Club hotel told me. “One thing is obvious: the control and bureaucracy will be hellish.”