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A general view of the accommodation at the athletes village in Rosa Khutor as preparations continue for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 1, 2014. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
A general view of the accommodation at the athletes village in Rosa Khutor as preparations continue for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 1, 2014. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

Sochi 2014

Russia’s answer to Whistler is between resort town and ghost town Add to ...

Two decades ago, the residents of the mountain valley that would play host to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics lived in splendid isolation. With no roads and no telephones, it was a world apart from the vast, Soviet-era resort on the Black Sea, only 45 kilometres away.

Today, after an epic building spree in which honey farms and cow pastures gave way to five-star hotels, high-fashion shops and no fewer than 16 ski lifts, it is one of the world’s biggest alpine resorts. Local residents and merchants are marvelling at a transformation that is still under way.

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This time last year, the Rosa Khutor resort village just up the road from the “mountain cluster” at Krasnaya Polyana did not exist. It was forest. “Now look at it,” says George Yurchenko, the project manager of the Legenda luxury watch store in the heart of the village. “It’s a brand-new village. We opened in December. There was nothing here before.”

But he and a few other merchants and hotel employees wonder whether Rosa Khutor and the nearby towns and villages will face another transformation after the Sochi Olympics end on Feb. 24.

There is no doubt the tourist and ski crowd will thin out; the question is by how much. It is unlikely Rosa Khutor will turn into a ghost town. It is equally unlikely it will attract enough visitors to keep its hotels, restaurants and bars at full capacity. There will be casualties.

Unlike Adler, the site of the bland, flat “coastal cluster” by the Black Sea that is home to the hockey, skating and curling arenas, Khutor feels like a proper Olympic town.

Overshadowed by ski mountains that rise 2,320 metres, it is nestled on either side of the Mzymta, the frothy Western Caucasus river that drains into the Black Sea.

On Wednesday, the blazing sun makes the village and the river sparkle. Doors are flung open to cool off the shops. Thousands of visitors, devoid of mitts and hats, their jackets unbuttoned, stroll along the promenade. A gaggle of Russian kids at the “Live Site” stage in the town’s main square practise an opening ceremony dance to thumping music. “It all kind of reminds me of Whistler [B.C.],” says Derek, a Canadian curling team official who declined to give his last name.

Rosa Khutor and the rest of the mountain cluster are connected to the coast by a road and railway link that would be the pride of any Western European city. And so it should be, given its horrendous cost: $9-billion (U.S.), or more than the total bill of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

With 12 tunnels and 45 bridges, it is said to one of the biggest transportation projects in Russian history. The road is fast. The train is faster, though surprisingly empty, making observers wonder how it will survive when the Olympic torch is snuffed out.

The Rosa Khutor village is an ambitious mix of familiar chain stores – McDonald’s restaurants and The North Face outdoor wear among them – with a few Russian names thrown in to remind all this is not some mountain resort in Austria or Italy. They all look good from a distance, but get inside and some of the shops look hastily cobbled together. No surprise there, given the construction rush.

Among the Russian shops, Legenda, Yurchenko’s employer, is probably the most ambitious. The elegant store sells a dazzling selection of watches made of white and yellow gold, some studded with emeralds and diamonds. Prices reach almost 2-million rubles (roughly $60,000). Not surprisingly, the shop doesn’t get many paying customers, even though the village is stuffed with well-heeled shoppers from all over the world.

“We haven’t sold many,” Yurchenko says.

Still, Yurchenko insists Legenda, which is owned by a wealthy Moscow businessman, will stay open after the Olympics. He says the plan is to turn Rosa Khutor into a summer and winter resort, meaning, theoretically at least, customers will come no matter what season.

At the same time, he thinks some of the stores and restaurants won’t make it after the Games end, and it’s hard to imagine that all the hotels will stay open. Six big hotels were built in little Rosa Khutor alone. There are also about 400 apartments.

Alina Bulanova, 24, the reception manager at the Valset Apartments (where three Globe and Mail reporters are staying), says the plan is to sell some of the apartments to buyers who fancy mountain sports. “But there won’t be so much people after the Olympics.”

Bulanova herself is leaving after the Games end. There is no doubt Russia’s answer to Whistler will need a clever relaunch project very soon.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly