The district of Tuapsinsky is not well known to people outside of Russia, but contains many pleasant surprises for first-time visitors. Located on the same latitude as the French Riviera, it has a subtropical Mediterranean climate and, with 280 days of sunshine a year, its small stretch is the sunniest and driest bit of the Russian coast.

The water is more than warm enough for swimming in the summer, yet skiing and other snowy pursuits beckon in the nearby mountains. Buffered by the Caucasus mountain range – the key crest of which is 20 kilometres from the district’s coastline – and nestled on Russia’s sought-after Black Sea shoreline, Tuapsinsky enjoys an enviable physical setting. Stunning views are to be found in the twists and turns of the mountain roads that wind along the drive from the district’s administration centre, Tuapse, to the regional capital city of Krasnodar, some three hours away.

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There are more than 300 resorts with a total capacity of 55,000 occupants in the district. According to official data, more than 1.5 million tourists, and growing, holiday in the area each year, generating Rbs5bn ($0.7bn) in receipts. The number of tourists over the past 5 years has risen by 15% and the occupancy rate of hotels is up by 11%. Spa and health-improvement services are a big draw.

Russian resort

International arrivals are few, though, and the area remains very Russian in character. But in the resorts and beachfront nightspots, an enthusiastic domestic clientele seems to be enjoying what’s on offer and is large enough in numbers to keep more than a few resorts in business.

If at times the service seems idiosyncratic (“I hate them all,” declared a woman working in a seafront souvenir kiosk about her customers when a pack of postcards was rejected for purchase), the relaxed atmosphere is a major compensation, as is watching the evening parade of fashions on the boardwalk. The facilities in the best resorts are top-notch and managers are making big efforts to make service standards more professional. The food, generally, is excellent.

Pushing at the higher end of the spectrum is the $160m Gamma resort complex, situated in a picturesque spot where a rocky beach is carved out of rugged mountain cliffs in a fantastically beautiful formation. Built in 2007 and owned by the Tuapse-based conglomerate Gamma Holding, it is the only five-star resort in the district and the first all-inclusive resort in Krasnodar Krai.

In addition to a 120-room hotel, where a standard room fetches $400 a night in the summer season, the complex includes a conference hall, medical facility and a set of 39 vacation cottages. There are plans to build three more hotel buildings in the site within the next year at a cost of $53m.

Be my guest

Finance director Maria Aleksandrova says the hotel runs at an average year-round occupancy rate of 50%, but in the summer it shoots up to 95%. Around 99% of guests are Russian, mostly from Krasnodar Krai and surrounding regions, although some come from Moscow. A third are business travellers, and the rest are tourists who book with 20 agents across Russia.

The occasional international guests tend to be middle-aged Germans, but the Spanish market is soon to be tapped, with an agent setting up there soon. “We had some French visitors recently and they were really impressed. And when Russians come here they are very surprised, they don’t expect such good service,” says Ms Aleksandrova.

She says the average age of the hotel staff is 35, showing they hire qualified and experienced people.

Gamma provides diligent hospitality training to employees to make sure they meet international standards and managers go on training courses abroad. They are aware they need to work hard to compete with not just nearby Sochi, but also the likes of Turkey, which draws masses of Russian tourists and undercuts Russian resorts on price. Transport is another issue: it is cheaper to fly to Turkey from St Petersburg, for example, than to Krasnodar.

Gamma management decided to switch to an all-inclusive system in August 2009 to boost bookings. Sales have gone up by 30% since then. The next move is to a more tailored approach for clients, offering ‘experience’ packages that include wine-tasting and other activities for a set price.

Ripple effect

Turkish resorts may be outright rivals for the likes of Gamma, but neighbouring Sochi brings more to Tuapse’s tourist offer than it takes away. Having the international spotlight on Sochi when it hosts the Winter Olympics in 2014 is expected to have a ripple effect on the surrounding region. That is what Gamma is hoping, in any case.

 “That’s why we are developing everything now, because we are expecting more business after the Olympics. There will be a big impact for us and there will definitely be a spotlight on our hotel,” says Ms Aleksandrova.

“There is competition with Sochi but we accept it because we have always been competing with Sochi. We just have to accept it and know our position. A lot of people from Sochi come here for their holidays.”

Given the importance of the tourism industry for Tuapse’s economy and the importance of the Sochi games in boosting the industry, a lot is riding on making a good impression to Olympic visitors. “The Olympics is only two weeks, which for the region is like fireworks, like a five-minute flash,” says the head of the district administration Vladimir Lybanev. “We want to provide the best service for the guests during that time, but we are also looking to the future so that people will come back again after tasting the local wine and food and sampling all we have here.” Having sampled some of the offerings, fDi would suggest going back for seconds is not a bad idea.