Sochi's sanatoriums cautiously open up for summer season

Andrew Roth in Moscow
Photograph: Dmitry Feoktistov/Tass

Spring breaks have been scrapped, pop concerts postponed. Police patrol the rocky beaches on the Black Sea coast and their promenades. Tourists are in quarantine. The grand old sanatoriums of Sochi, seaside spas offering a daily regiment of health cures, are empty.

But from next week, Sochi’s 65 sanatoriums will be the only hotels taking vacationers as the resort city slowly opens for its summer season – a draw for sun-starved Russian tourists since Soviet times.

Dmitry Bogdanov, whose Znanie sanatorium has not taken guests since March, is clear-eyed about what has been “a serious test” for his business, but he sees hope ahead.

From 1 June, he will welcome back tourists: Russians eager for mineral, carbon dioxide and mud baths, or simply to occupy beach loungers for hours under the hot Black Sea sun.

“Guests are ready to come, those who have been here know that they need to come back,” he said, adding that he was booked up for the coming months. “The only ones put off [by the restrictions] don’t know what a good sanatorium is.”

As Russian regions begin to reopen, Sochi is hoping to salvage what was supposed to be another raucous summer season for everyone from the Kremlin elite to ordinary pensioners. More than 6 million tourists visited Sochi in 2019 alone, and nearly 4 million stayed in hotels.

The Matsesta Spa, for patients with respiratory problems Photograph: Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

While sanatoriums with medical licences can reopen, they have chafed at stringent and expensive new sanitation guidelines.

A ban on buffets and a requirement of a fortnight’s stay have been dropped. But testing requirements for hotel workers and health passes for guests have remained.

“Economically, the situation is really tough,” said Bogdanov, crediting government support but calling the size of the problem “colossal”. “Some of my colleagues are nervous, seriously nervous. But most are hanging on.”

Maya Lomidze, the executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia, said opening the sanatoriums could be a lifeline for those businesses but warned against over-zealous regulations. “I can’t say it saves the season. But it’s better than nothing.”

The damage to the tourism industry is likely to be severe. She estimated that 30% of tourism-focused businesses in Russia could exit the market. Hotels are still closed.

Ambiguity reigns. Last week, the region’s governor told Vladimir Putin that he would “intuit, feel” in early June whether hotels could open later that month. “Don’t intuit,” Putin replied, advising him to make the decision to reopen “timely, but don’t rush.” Shelter-in-place orders have been extended to 6 June.

On the ground it has been a bizarre season, complete with cat-and-mouse games between police and furtive vacationers who arrived in droves just before the quarantine began.

“The entire country saw that we’re going to be locked down for a long time, and a lot of people realised at once that sitting it out in Sochi is a fabulous idea, just fabulous,” said Gleb Isaenkov, a brand, marketing and event producer. “Because sitting in Tambov or Tver for two months is much different than being stuck in Sochi.”

Many have been rounded up. One hotel complex has been turned into an observator, or quarantine point, for hundreds of Russian tourists caught trying to slip in from around the country. Several angry vacationers from St Petersburg briefly declared a hunger strike over their confinement, but quickly abandoned the plan.

A satirical video reposted on Sochifornia, a popular Instagram channel, captured the zeitgeist: a sunbather in a Panama hat creeps on to a beach to the music from the Pink Panther. But just as he is getting comfortable, a policeman in a black face mask chases him off. “I was just trying to get a tan,” he yells into the camera.

“Of course you can’t have a resort atmosphere when there’s a self-isolation regime,” said Isaenkov, who has seen corporate events dry up due to the epidemic. He has turned his attention to other projects, like plans for a yachting and parasailing business. “Predicting this year is a shot in the dark.”

Daria Bagdasarian, a managing partner of Work&Play, usually organises corporate retreats and team-building events for hundreds or even thousands of employees who want to take advantage of the seaside and nearby mountains, the setting for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Beach parties are a popular request.

“Last week I had a request to organise a dinner for 100 people but we don’t even know when restaurants are going to be open,” she said. “It’s that kind of situation, we don’t know what or when.”

Kinotavr, a Russian film festival that holds open-air screenings on a square by Sochi’s Zimniy theatre, has said it hopes to reschedule for the autumn. Local attractions such as the Formula 1 Autodrom and the Sochi Park theme park are still closed. And the estrada music concerts that dominate the summer stages have been postponed.

Valery Leontiev, 71, a shaggy-haired crooner who has been a mainstay of the scene since the 1980s, performs two concerts each summer in the Black Sea city. In 2006, Putin reportedly joined him onstage in Sochi for a duet of the song Nadezhda at a concert for the heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States, now comprising nine ex-Soviet republics.

In written answers to the Guardian, Leontyev said he “dreamed” of performing in Sochi again but it made little sense to plan a concert in the throes of an epidemic.

He associated the summer season in Sochi with “full concert halls, mini-dresses, the tanned arms, legs and décolleté of female fans.”

“I won’t mind at all if people come to concerts in masks and gloves,” he said of the future. “And I won’t be afraid to receive flowers from the public, although, as a rule, there are a lot of flowers and that means very close contact with my audience. But I’m not at all afraid for myself, only for others.”