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"Come and vacation in Sochi ... please!"

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 11:34am

SOCHI, Russia (CNN) -- "Olympic Village train station!" I say into the smartphone, which is running my voice through a translation app.

I give the device back to the taxi driver.

He reads the Russian display showing the app's best guess of what I've just said and then scratches his head.

We left the hotel not five minutes ago but already he's lost.

With only hand signals and inaccurate electronic translation, the chance of reaching my destination, just across town, looks slim.

And this is no isolated incident.

More lost taxi drivers

In fact, it's the second time today I've ordered a taxi with a local driver who has little notion how to get around the city he calls home.

Bizarre?

Turns out there's a very good reason for such confusion, and it's not solely due to my inadequate language skills.

It's more to do with the complete transformation of the Adler district in Sochi, home of the Olympic Park.

Such is the scale of the change it's as if a new town has opened in one day.

No wonder there are a few bemused cabbies on the streets.

Roads, bridges and railway lines

According to the local government, the following developments have been completed in the Sochi region in the past five years: 360 kilometers of new roads and bridges, 54 railway bridges totaling 16 kilometers in length, 200 kilometers of new railway lines, 22 tunnels, 480 kilometers of low-pressure gas pipelines, 550 kilometers of high-voltage power lines and two new thermal and one gas power plant that together produce more than 1200 megawatts.

A new water and wastewater treatment facility processes 255,000 cubic meters of liquid per day; a new seaport has been built to take two passenger liners, two ferries and 300 yachts.

There are 60 new educational, cultural, sports and health facilities, and four ski complexes have been created (Roza Khutor, OAO Gazprom, Gornaya Karusel, Alpika - Servis).

Hotel capacity for the city has doubled to 50,000 rooms in the same period, with 56 of these hotels now rated four-star or above.

The ambition of the Sochi project is so staggering it has to be seen to be believed.

'Of course there are drawbacks'

"Krasnaya Polyana [Sochi's mountain resort] has always been visited year-round but the Olympics will help us make it popular around the world," Malorodnova Julia Vladimirovna, deputy chief of Sochi's Department of Resort Business and Tourism, tells CNN.

Given the extent of tourism development in the city, you can see how complaints such as those by many Olympics journalists about their unfinished hotel rooms might have rankled.

"Of course there are drawbacks --- some of the hotels have been recently built.

"If you would like to find the negative you will," Vladimirovna tells CNN.

"In 2013, about four million people visited us.

"There have been fewer tourists during the preparation for the Games -- we lost 10% to 15% -- but that's natural.

"When you make a renovation in your flat, you wouldn't invite friends," as Vladimirovna puts it.

Too many hotel rooms?

Sochi estimates that hotel capacity was at 79% last year which, given all the new accommodation, raises the question: how are all those hotels going to be filled after the Games?

For Vladimirovna the answer is simple: "Chains such as Hyatt, Radisson and Marriott [are now here and] they will attract tourists.

"We're also launching a huge advertising campaign in America, Canada and Europe."

Sport will remain a key marketing tool once the Olympics are over.

The Olympic site will be the staging ground for Russia's first Formula One Grand Prix, in October.

Sochi will also be one of the venue cities for the 2018 World Cup, and it now has the infrastructure to stage many alpine and winter sport events.

The theme park manager

Paul Beck, the avuncular Dutchman in charge of Sochi's new theme park, recognizes the challenges but remains a keen advocate for the city.

"[In Soviet times] people came here because it was the best beach in Russia, but when the borders were opened everyone could travel to Europe.

"Now we have to fight to get them back.

"We have a quality product ... although attracting people from outside Russia ... will not be easy.

"But let's give it a try!"

Previously managing director of the second biggest theme park in Europe, Beck has also been a Volkswagen board member and head of World Expos -- the five-yearly event where nations and large organizations show off their achievements.

Will tourists come?

Given his experience, does he think enough tourists will come to provide a decent return on the theme park's $700 million investment?

"We need to attract 1.5 million visitors annually to turn a profit.

"The great thing about Sochi is you have wonderful year-round weather," he says.

That lets the park stay open all day and into the evening.

Sochi residents say the city has just three seasons -- warm and humid summers giving way to long autumns that pass seamlessly into spring.

Market research by an American company predicted higher visitor numbers to the park than those needed to break even, Beck says.

Among its attractions are that it's the only theme park in Russia outside Moscow and it has one of the biggest looping roller coasters in the world.

"They'll come," Beck says of future visitors. "I have a feeling about it!"

Reimagining Russia

Beck was unconvinced about moving to Russia for his new job, he tells CNN, a place he imagined as "dark, unfriendly and with lousy food."

Seeing the ambitious plans for the theme park changed his mind.

"Russia's time is coming. Things are moving fast," he says.

"The culture is changing -- a new, more open generation is coming through."

Working with Russians, "you can laugh! They're a nice population."

Therein lies the essence of the Sochi gamble.

The Putin government hopes the city, as an open door to the rest of the world, will help to craft a strong and positive perception of this bear of a country.

Either way, tourists will be voting with their feet.

The-CNN-Wire
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