Developing new tourist resorts in the North Caucasus
Tourism is certainly one of the most prospective and attractive sectors in the North Caucasus. Personally, I had many occasions (See J. Radvanyi, Caucase, le grand jeu des influences (in French), Edition du Cygne, 2011, 252 p. or Le tourisme dans le Caucase (in collaboration with P. Thorez), Annales de Géographie 1976 N°468 pp. 178-205) to experience the different aspects of this potential: a great variety of splendid mountain landscapes, long summers and not so cold snowy winters; relatively good access through hubs like Mineralnye Vody or Sochi-Adler Airports; famous natural or national Parks (some of them were created before the Soviet time), which contributed in the past to preserve the biodiversity of this region; and relatively dense population and transport networks.
The most attractive places are those which combine these factors with some of the most spectacular scenery and mountain village architecture, like in the valleys of Dagestan or North Ossetia.
Soviets caught on to this potential back in the 1930s while developing state tourism, but, the Soviet Union suffered a severe crisis during the 1980’s and 90’s, and much of the former touristic infrastructure is now obsolete. Even at the few resorts which tried to renew this tradition, like Elbrouz/Terskol or Teberda/Donbai, the level of service remains poor. Therefore, it is no surprise that regional and federal authorities are trying to give this sector a new facelift; they consider it a potential engine for further economic development.
However, developing such activities in a region like the Caucasus is not an easy task. Besides big investments and technologies, which are a necessity – a task which could be resolved through cooperation between Russian and Western groups – there are at least three other questions that are often raised by observers.
The first one concerns security. Tourism is certainly one of the most sensitive economic sectors to security questions; and we know that the whole Caucasus is considered one of the most insecure and unstable regions of Eurasia. Of course, it is possible to organize the travel of some small VIP groups via helicopter and armed guard, but it is hardly possible to develop a real mountain resort on such a shaky foundation. All modern Alpine or North American resorts include a wide variety of services: hotels, restaurants, various modes of entertainment; and even VIP people appreciate this large offer of services. It is clear that the development of such activities in the North Caucasus must rely on a new level of cooperation between federal powers and regional and local communities.
The second question concerns ecology. The Caucasus is one of the most famous regions of Eurasia because of its biodiversity. Since the end of the 19th century, a number of national or nature parks were created to protect the most valuable aspects of these landscapes. Some of the new projects propose to build resorts which are close to or interfere with these protected areas, an idea which gave rise to many questions about the possible damages that could result with new investments in this region. Tourism is a usual and important component of natural parks, bolstering their development outside strict biological aspects. Generally, the two aspects are well integrated if the rules are precisely defined and respected. But we also know that in the past, since Soviet times, activities related to tourism or the construction of dachas for officials were also often used in Russia as a pretext to reduce the surface of protected areas. If we want to avoid such problems in the future development of tourist activities in the Caucasus, it is necessary to elaborate these rules and create the conditions to respect them, which probably needs new forms of involvement of the civilian society through NGO.
The third question concerns local and national communities. All proposed areas for the development of new mountain resorts correspond to territories used as agricultural and pasture lands by local communities. The ethnic complexity and the historical background of these communities (like the “punished peoples” at the end of the World War II) is one of the specificities of the Caucasus which cannot be ignored by the decision makers at federal or regional levels. The forced reattribution of lands in the scope of these projects could create further tensions in an already locally tense climate if the rights of all are not fully respected. Some recent examples of such tensions in Kabardino-Balkaria or in Dagestan suggest that these fears are not groundless. Conflicts between rural communities are common in areas where national parks or tourist resorts are being planned. But the local national groups in the Caucasus have their specificities, and including them in these projects is certainly a necessity. This cooperation could even give a new impulse to the projects: the experience of many resorts in the Alps suggests that helping mountain pastoralism and agriculture create favorable conditions for developing mountain tourism itself, thus helping to make the life of the local population more stable. It creates job opportunities during the summer season in sky resorts, many local inhabitants being employed in services. In this way, it helps involving local people. And this involvement is certainly one of the main preconditions for the success of the whole project.
Jean Radvanyi is Geographer, Director of the French-Russian Research Center in Moscow, author of the Atlas géopolitique du Caucase (in French), Edition Autrement, Paris 2010