SOCHI NATIONAL PARK, Southern Russia, February 19 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – When the army truck rolled into the river, the women in the open flatbed started to scream.
Then they fell silent and busied themselves with selfies.
There really was no danger: The high-clearance truck breezed across the shallow Shakhe River without so much as splashing its passengers.
But excitement among the tourists visiting Russia’s Olympic heartland was running high, fueled by a recent wine tasting. So the photo spree continued throughout the tour of the Sochi waterfalls, and peaked at dinner when the Circassian dance troupe started stomping and fluttering to its traditional rhythms.
Though the Winter Olympic Games are currently Sochi’s main attraction, entertainment at the Black Sea resort is not limited to sports, cafes and shopping malls.
The city boasts a well-developed tourism industry that offers plenty of opportunities to check out the surrounding area’s natural beauty and the traditional customs of its indigenous people.
The industry has come a long way in recent years, doing its best to get away from the dull, cliché-ridden Soviet style of entertainment.
But this largely bottom-up effort by local small businesses has thus far stayed below most Olympics-goers’ radars. And perhaps they’re missing out.
Downtown Sochi is dotted with tiny stands offering the same set of two dozen one-day excursions. Prices range from 500 to 1,200 rubles ($14 to $34).
The crown jewel of the local tourism industry is the Shakhe River’s 33 waterfalls. But to reach them, visitors must first to make it through honey, cheese and wine tastings in small villages outside Sochi, a short drive along a serpentine road chock full of turns with names like “Mother-in-Law’s Tongue” and “Daughter-in-Law’s Twists and Turns.”
The produce is homemade. In one of the Adyghe villages, you can actually watch the savory chechil cheese being made and pick your own wheel of it right off the smoker.
“You know better, so here,” says the shop’s owner, a lively, stocky woman, as she puts a plastic bag on picky clients’ hands so they can grab the cheese themselves.
The famed waterfalls are located in Sochi National Park, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the heart of historical Sochi, and are reachable by a paved road or a cross-country shortcut in the aforementioned army truck. It’s obvious which option is the more entertaining.
The waterfalls genuinely inspire rampant picture-taking. If Sochi’s tourism authorities had been more business savvy, some of the more picturesque scenes in “Lord of the Rings” could have perhaps been shot on the Shakhe River, and none would be the worse for it.
On Saturdays, the tour culminates in a dinner at a dimly lit hall where patrons munch on kebab and guzzle wine, sitting on long wooden benches.
Onstage, broad-shouldered men and graceful women perform folk dances bordering on acrobatics in their traditional outfits – black tunics, long-haired sheepskin hats or headbands and knee-high boots for the men, and long-sleeved, floor-length white dresses for the women.
These are the Circassians – a minority ethnic group native to the surrounding North Caucasus region, which includes subgroups like the Adyghe and the Kabardins. Many Circassians – by some estimates hundreds of thousands – were violently forced out of Russia by tsarist authorities in the 1800s. Today, activists in the resulting diaspora say the expulsions amounted to ethnic cleansing, or possibly even genocide, and have used this month’s Olympics to bring attention to their cause.
This story is not told at dinner. Instead, to the rapid beating of drums, the party’s master of ceremonies – known as a tamada – leads the tourists in toasts. At the high point of the show, one of the performers tosses as many as a dozen daggers into the air – using his hands, feet and mouth! – letting them plunge down into the wooden floor.
There are other tours too, such as the teahouses of Uch-Dere, a village where visitors sample the produce of “the northernmost tea plantations in the world” and get a dose of ethnic Russian folk color.
Horseback rides, water parks, scuba diving tours, performances by trained dolphins and local steam baths – or banyas – are also on offer, as are other outdoor and historical sites, including Stalin’s summer home (the real thing).
The excursions are far from flawless: The guides have a tendency to drone on, reciting in clichéd terms a version of local history so romanticized it would make Sir Walter Scott cringe – a remnant of the old Soviet approach that prized entertaining tourists less than “educating” them.
There is also always the danger of ending up on a bus with people more interested in local beverages than folk customs or mountain views.
Most tourists on the Russian-language excursions, however, aren’t rowdy: middle-aged couples and families with children. (English-language tours are also available, though they fail to attract much of an audience.)
Overall, the Olympics have given Sochi’s tourism much less of a boost than locals had hoped.
“Everybody’s at the venues. We expected people to come, but no luck,” tour guide Galina said.
This sentiment was echoed by every vendor of souvenirs, honey, drinks and chebureki (meat-filled fritters) along the route. All of them spoke about the upcoming summer with the longing of people living through polar night.
The bulk of Sochi’s excursion industry comprises between 20 and 30 firms, all small local businesses, said the deputy head of City Hall’s tourism department, Yulia Malorodnova.
The city reported 3.8 million visitors in 2013, though migrant laborers working on Olympic facilities seem to be included in the figure, making the number of tourists much lower, said Maxim Zhasan, who heads the entrepreneur-support department in the city administration.
City officials concede that Sochi needs to offer more than its beaches and ski slopes to lure tourists, and the words “environmental tourism” and “ethnic tourism” are much bandied about. But little effort has been made to connect these with the Games.
Local tour operators pin their hopes not on the Olympic crowd but on the Russian regulars, many of whom have been coming here for decades to get some surf and sun.
Sochi’s offerings “have really improved in the past couple of years,” said Olga, a tourist in a leopard-print sweatsuit on the “33 Waterfalls” tour, which she found “really enjoyable.”
But even Olga – who got the trip to Sochi from her employer, the mammoth Norilsk Nickel smelter located above the Arctic Circle – admitted that she only went on the excursion because she and her husband failed to get any cheap tickets to Olympic event.
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