Down at heel Black Sea resort pins its hopes on Russian staycations

Tourists sunbathe next to imitation wine bottles during a wine festival in Anapa, Russia. Tourists sunbathe next to imitation wine bottles during a wine festival in Anapa, Russia. Photograph: Andrew Roth/The ObserverTourists sunbathe next to imitation wine bottles during a wine festival in Anapa, Russia. Photograph: Andrew Roth/The Observer

The seaside town of Anapa hopes foreign travel ban will bring holidaymakers back

Andrew Roth in AnapaSun 23 May 2021 03.45 EDT

It is not yet peak season on Anapa’s Black Sea coast so there is still space to spread out on its sandy beach, the pride of a resort town that may be one of the best chances many Russians get to visit the seaside this year.

Wander through the streets beyond the waterfront and you’ll find a sprawl of knick-knack shops, amusement and water parks, shashlik stands and carnival games that make up what is, this year, Russia’s resort of last resort.

About five million tourists, mainly Russians, will head to Anapa this year, their numbers swelled by Covid bans on flights to foreign destinations. The city’s authorities hope this boom will permanently broaden its appeal. “I won’t call it unique but it’s absolutely an extra chance for us,” says the city’s mayor, Vasily Shvets, carefully noting that he is not making light of the pandemic. “It’s a chance for tourists to think about us and come see, to fall in love and then hopefully to come back again.”

Anapa has long been known as a children’s resort. It was once the place where Young Pioneers – the Soviet Union’s answer to Scouts – came for their holidays, and is now host to many summer camps. The 300 days of sun each year is one draw, as are the sandy beaches, among the longest in mainland Russia, that lead into the shallow waters of the bay.

But it has also gained a reputation as a chaotic holiday town for those on a budget, swelled with cheap guesthouses and eyesore apartments, as well as a punchline for the Moscow jet set. “Don’t go to Anapa. Just don’t,” wrote a prominent Moscow media manager last week in an Instagram rundown of a trip to the Black Sea.

A stigma on domestic resorts has persisted since the 1990s. Tourists to the area then had a reputation for “low standards for recreation, low standards for culture, low standards for alcohol,” says Pavel Mayorov, an aide to Shvets, over a chilled glass of Gewürztraminer from the local Chateau Andre. “We don’t like that. We want to change that.”

In one effort to move beyond family tourism, officials have launched a regional wine festival. Although, as one official quipped, it hasn’t led to a fight for the beach chairs yet, the mood at the festival is buoyant. At one station, a winemaker from the Old Greek Wine Cellar pulls out a bottle of his muscat rosé and offers a toast. At another, Alexander, a former regional official from the Urals, is selling “garage wines” in front of a Soviet-era car, a nod to the tradition of bootleggers selling from their car boots. Jazz echoes over the square before a screening of Another Round, an alcohol-soaked Dutch film about a boozy search for the meaning of life.

Children play in the water at a public beach in Anapa.Children play in the water at a public beach in Anapa. Photograph: Andrew Roth/The Observer

On the beach Polina Leontyeva sits in the shade of a giant replica wine bottle as her three-year-old son plays in the sand. She came to Anapa when her holiday to Turkey was cancelled. “It was a choice between here or not going to the beach this year,” she says. “As long as I have space to sit here, I’m good. We don’t need much else and the weather is perfect. But I don’t think I would have come in July or August.” Asked why, she says: “It’s a circus.”

Still, there are signs the area is drifting upmarket. Sochi, buffeted by billions of roubles in investments stemming back to the 2014 Olympics, has built a healthy summer holiday and skiing business. Gelendzhik, once also a punchline town, has lured in wealthier tourists with new hotels and festivals. “Our resorts are competing together against foreign ones,” says Shvets, naming Turkey and Egypt. “We’re competing, so people who, for whatever reason, were going abroad every year chose Russian resorts instead.”

Early in the season, Anapa has its own charm. Soon after dawn, fishermen in a skiff race along the waters of the Anapa Bay toward the nets gathering schools of mullus, or barabulka in Russian, the saltwater fish grilled on summer days. The fishermen pick and shake the stray fish out of the nets, attracting gulls who dive for the castoffs. Vladimir Byshko, a Soviet army veteran, plays ballads on his accordion over the rocky “High Coast,” where men in speedos sun on their stomachs. At dusk, hot air balloons rose over the beach with short bursts of propane flame.

Up in the hills to the east of the city, Edouard Alexandrov looks out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of his Gai-Kodzor winery, mulling over a glass of rosé whether Anapa can be transformed. Tourism is way up, he says, citing a steady stream of high-profile guests to his winery. But, echoing others, he complains about recent runaway construction. “I believe they can rebuild the centre of the city,” he says of Anapa. “But elsewhere it is hard to erase what has been done.”


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