The Hotel Grozny City is a testament to how big this formerly war-torn Chechen capital is thinking. Thirty-two storeys high, it has three restaurants, a swimming pool and a claim of five-star service.
Floor after floor of vacant rooms are a reminder of how far there is to go. “It’s not my fault or the hotel’s fault,” said Taj Eddin Sultan, Hotel Grozny City’s general manager, as we sipped tea in its rooftop restaurant, which provides an impressive view of the construction sites that dominate the city below. He says the hotel, which opened last October, is usually more than 90 per cent empty. “Even if I gave rooms away for one ruble, there are no people to take them.”
Mr. Sultan, a Syrian-born Chechen, is a long-time veteran of the hotel industry in the Middle East, where the slightest shiver of regional turmoil can lead to the mass cancellations of bookings the next day. But none of his previous jobs in Syria, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates quite prepared him for the task of trying to lure travellers to a city under reconstruction that is remembered for its old status as the most destroyed and most heavily mined on the planet.
While Chechens call the current situation stable, you can only use the word in comparison to what came before. I spent a birthday on a Russian military base here a decade ago in the midst of the Second Chechen War, sharing vodka with terrified conscripts as we listened to a night filled with explosions somewhere in the distance. None of us dared go into the city until the sun rose the next day.
Today’s Grozny is safe enough that a foreigner can feel almost comfortable walking through the city after dark. There are branches of popular Moscow cafés, Uzbek kebab restaurants and Turkish pizzerias. But traffic is still directed by men sporting Kalashnikovs and shrapnel vests, and the air is still thick with the sense that the bad old days could return in a hurry.
The Canadian government, for one, still advises against “all” travel to Chechnya, as well as the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, neighbouring Muslim regions in Russia’s restive North Caucasus. “Suicide bombings occur on a regular basis, mostly in the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia,” the warning reads. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Russia similarly advises readers that visiting Chechnya “is like walking in a minefield. It might seem pleasant at times… until you take a wrong step.”
My Russian friends – who hear “Chechnya” and think of the string of horrific suicide attacks to hit Moscow and other Russian cities over the past 13 years – could name many, many other places they’d rather spend a weekend. “Oh, no, thanks! I need some preparation in South Sudan or Somalia before Grozny,” was the aghast response I got from one Muscovite I invited to join me for a weekend excursion.
Mr. Sultan believes Chechnya is now safer than many other cities in Russia and says Chechens need to get online and spread the message that the republic has changed dramatically and is now ready to welcome tourists. “We need a Chechen electronic army. We need everybody in Chechnya hitting the websites and changing the international point of view,” he said, outlining a tourism plan he will present to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in the coming days.
But it’s not just tourists who are in short supply. Hotel Grozny City sometimes struggles to secure fresh vegetables and decent meat, Mr. Sultan said. He often has to send his purchasing manager outside of Chechnya in order to get products that meet the hotel’s standards. Finding competent staff was another challenge, especially when hiring security guards in a city full of warriors used to shooting first and looking later at what they might have hit.
Cultural evens and nightlife are also scarce, the gentlemanly Mr. Sultan moans, although Grozny’s main theatre does produce Chechen-language plays. The population became more conservative and religious during 15 years of fighting, and facets of sharia law have been introduced. Alcohol is banned in public (although the mini-bars in the Hotel Grozny City are well-stocked) and women who work for the government are required to wear head scarves.
Chechnya does have attractions to offer, primarily its stunning mountain landscapes. The local government – flush with cash payouts from a Kremlin administration grateful for the relative peace – is hoping to capitalize by building huge ski and lakeside resorts in Chechnya’s chunk of the Caucasus Mountains.
Another draw is the people themselves. Befriend a Chechen and they’re likely to invite you to dinner at their house the same night.
In Soviet times, 20,000 visitors a month came to go skiing, walking and horse-riding in the Chechen wilderness. “It is like Switzerland, only without the roads,” the deputy tourism minister boasted several years ago while launching the thus-far unsuccessful campaign to lure travellers.
The situation has improved enough that Grozny does qualify as a vacation to those living in Dagestan and Ingushetia, where violence is still on the rise. “Tourists from those places, they see Grozny and they say ‘Oh wow! Can we stay here?’” says Elina Batayeva, the 24-year-old director of a year-old company known as Chechnya Tourism and Travel. She says her fledgling company has already hosted several hundred visitors from other parts of Russia’s North Caucasus.
And foreigners? “You’re the first one I’ve seen here,” she smiled sadly.