‘More beautiful than Vegas’: infamous for war, human rights abuses and torture, Chechnya seeks tourists
At nighttime in the Chechen capital of Grozny an immense fountain lights up and its jets of water dance to the music of Celine Dion.
“It is more beautiful than Las Vegas,” says the city’s mayor Muslim Khuchiyev.
For most people, the Chechnya region in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus brings to mind a dark history and grim present.
The mountainous republic was the scene of two brutal separatist wars against Moscow that left tens of thousands dead and Grozny devastated.
Now, despite sporadic attacks from a lingering Islamist insurgency, mainly-Muslim Chechnya has largely been pacified.
But the cost of peace has been placing the region under the iron-fisted control of Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel turned Kremlin loyalist who critics say has carved out his own fiefdom through torture and rampant abuses.
The region has undergone major reconstruction fuelled by vast sums of money from the Kremlin that has seen Grozny transformed from an empty shell to a glittering showcase of illuminated skyscrapers and mammoth mosques.
And while few may believe it possible, the authorities under Kadyrov now insist they are looking to turn Chechnya into an unlikely tourist draw.
On a tightly-controlled visit last week, foreign journalists were supposed to interview Kadyrov after evidence emerged of a crackdown on gay men in the deeply conservative region.
After the strongman leader skipped out of the encounter at the last moment officials instead used the opportunity to push Chechnya’s claims as an attractive destination for visitors.
“Recently people have been spreading lies about our republic, saying we torture gays, violate human rights and that it is dangerous to come here” said information minister Jambulat Umarov.
“But this is completely false and we are going to show you that tourists are welcome.”
According to the region’s tourist board, some 100,000 visitors came to Chechnya last year.
Like many of the claims officials here make that figure is hard to confirm. The authorities routinely manipulate statistics to give a flattering image of Kadyrov’s rule.
Tourist board official Dagmara Isakova insisted, however, that the region is putting in place the infrastructure to handle an influx of tourists.
“We are building a lot of hotels and leisure zones, we are developing tourism on a major scale,” she said.
“We are getting prepared to satisfy any demands visitors may have.”
The few tourists that can be found wandering the streets of Grozny say they thought long and hard before visiting.
“My brother was a soldier during the second Chechen war and when he found out I was coming for three days he said ‘you’re mad, they’ll kill you’,” Muscovite Nadiya Alyonova, 53, said.
Instead, when she arrived Alyonova said that she was “pleasantly surprised” by Grozny.
Despite its physical transformation, it is difficult to escape the insecurity that has swirled in the region.
Heavily armed Chechen forces patrol the streets in large numbers and appear always on alert.
In December 2016 fierce gun battles with rebel fighters erupted in central Grozny, with a subsequent security operation leaving a reported 11 insurgents dead.
Tatyana Taplova, who was visiting from Moscow with her family, said that she felt sure that it was safe to visit the capital city.
“There are lots of police in the streets, nothing can happen,” said the 49-year-old teacher.
But with rebels still operating in pockets around the region, few appear willing to venture outside Grozny and up into the spectacular Caucasus mountains nearby.
“We decided not to go up into the mountains in order to avoid any risks,” Taplova said.
Sitting in the shade of a parasol, 70-year-old Koka has set up a stall selling souvenirs of Grozny to try to cash in on the nascent flow of tourists.
But despite the claims from the authorities, she insists there is still only a tiny trickle of people willing to visit the region from outside.
“No one comes, I sell almost nothing,” she said. “What is the point of their empty hotels? Why don’t the authorities build more factories so that my sons can find work?”
“All of this is a facade. Tourists don’t see the reality, they don’t see how we live.”
Ibragim, a student of political sciences in Berlin who fled the war and has come back for the holidays, said that “this story of developing tourism is to please the Russians.”
The authorities “want to show that everything here is going well and under control,” he said.