Russia's Caucasus ski plan clouded by airport attack

26th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia used the Davos gathering of the world business elite on Wednesday to pitch an ambitious 15 billion dollar plan to open the Caucasus to ski tourism, despite this week's bomb attack.

Even before the 2,500 economic and political leaders arrived in the snowy Swiss resort, Monday's deadly Moscow bomb blast blamed on Caucasian Islamist separatists had clouded the already controversial venture.

The scheme's promoter-in-chief, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, shortened his trip to speak at the opening of the meeting, in an Alpine village plastered with Russian publicity materials, but the launch was to go ahead regardless.

And building was already underway, while representatives of the state-run firm Peak 5642 have embarked on a European tour to find adventurous investors prepared to take a risk on winter tourism's new frontier.

"Peak 5642 is going to transform the Caucasus," Medvedev said before leaving Moscow, according to the company, which is named after the height in metres of Elbrus, the highest peak in the Caucasus and in Europe.

"It will show how we can beat poverty and terrorism with tourism. In 2014 the world will descend on Sochi, and we want the world to keep coming back," he declared, referring to Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The five ski resorts, running in a chain from Lagonaki in one of Russia's most spectacular national parks east to Matlas in the Republic of Dagestan, are not directly connected to Sochi's Olympic festivities.

But the promoters are hoping that the excitement generated by the games will encourage ordinary Russian tourists to take up skiing, and attract foreigners to a region hitherto best known for conflict and extremism.

Russia's moneyed elite already enjoy holidays in large numbers in Alpine resorts like Courchevel, St Moritz and Davos itself, but only two percent of the country as a whole has skied, and Peak 5642 hopes to convince them.

The development will last until 2020 and the North Caucasus Resorts Company hopes for five million visitors a year -- 150,000 people a day -- with hotel accomodations for 90,000 people and cheaper ski passes than the Alps.

But they will have to allay concerns over stability in a region where Russian troops fought breakaway Chechnya in the 1990s, launched an operation into neighbouring Georgia in 2008 and still face Islamist insurgents.

Those insurgents struck a blow against Russian credibility on Monday, triggering a bomb in Moscow's Domodedovo airport that left 35 dead.

"The events in Moscow have been a terrible reminder of the dangers of militancy," said Akhmed Bilalov, head of the North Caucasus Resorts Company (NCRC) and vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee.

"NCRC and its partners won't consider for one moment pulling back from our project. What do terrorists achieve for the Caucasus by blowing people up? Nothing -- they are nihilists," he said, in a press statement.

"NCRC, on the other hand, carries an ideal to improve the lives of the people of the Caucasus," promising 160,000 jobs for the remote region.

Attacks on government officials and police in the Northern Caucasus, where the resorts are planned, take place almost daily. But Islamist leaders have in recent months pledged to bring their attacks to Russia's heartland.

But leaving aside the political risk, the international investors gathered in Davos will also be concerned about Russia's reputation for corruption in public works contracts and for environmental damage.

5642 Peak deputy director general Juri Karpenko met AFP in Paris and insisted that the investment vehicle -- in which Russia has already put two billion dollars -- would be audited to international standards.

He also denied that the resorts threaten the spectacular mountain environment, insisting developers would work with local groups to minimise its impact.

One local group, however, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, based in the republic of Adygea, disagreed.

"We met with the organisers of this project once in October. Since then, there has not been any contact and we are not working with them," coordinator Andrei Rudomakha told AFP.

Part of the Lagonaki resort lies within a United Nations protected UNESCO natural heritage site, and international green groups said development there could be illegal.

Karpenko insisted this wouldn't be the case -- and that the resort proper was outside the protected area, with only ski runs and cable cars within -- and that the developers and the Russia state would work through any problems.

© 2011 AFP

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