Sunday, February 23, 2014 12:00 AM
By Nancy Armour, USA Today -- Ask people their impression of Salt Lake City before the 2002 Olympics, and odds were it wouldn't have been too favorable.
"The image people had before was dry, white and Mormon," said Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake.
A dozen years later, Salt Lake City's tourism industry is booming, and it continues to attract new business as a result of its Olympic makeover.
"In large measure, it comes from that first change in perception that happened immediately after the Olympics," Beck said, citing the warm and friendly impression Salt Lake City made both on visitors to the games and those watching on TV.
"It's been transformed to an exponential three," Beck added. "The ripple effect has really been so large that it's almost been hard for people to comprehend. And in areas where people aren't normally considering."
As Sochi nurses its post-Olympics hangover, the question becomes: Now what? Oh, sure. There are plans for the venues, some of which will be used as soon as next month, when the Paralympics begin March 7. The Olympic Park will be the site of the Russian Grand Prix, an F-1 race, in October.
But what about the host city, where organizers spent billions on infrastructure upgrades, hotels and transportation links to turn a beach resort into a year-round destination?
Nestled along the Black Sea, with the Caucasus Mountains less than an hour away, the combination of sand and snow set Sochi apart from other European playgrounds. But it's also one of the southern-most points in Russia, a 2.5-hour flight from Moscow and directly reachable from only a few other European cities.
Have the Sochi Olympics been enough to entice people to come back and make the $51 billion price tag worth it? If the experiences of the previous four hosts of the Winter Games are a guide, the answer will be yes.
Turin was already a large, industrial city -- the home of Fiat -- before the games, while Vancouver was one of Canada's biggest and most cosmopolitan cities. Salt Lake City and Nagano were smaller and in more remote areas of their countries. But figures provided by officials in Salt Lake City, Torino and Vancouver all show an increase in tourism that continues long after the flame is extinguished.
Tourism spending in Utah increased from $4 billion in 2001 to $7.6 billion in 2012, Beck said. Skier days, the industry term for guest visits, increased from 2.8 million to 4.2 million, he said.
In Turin, the number of visitors has almost doubled, going from a little over 550,000 in 2001 to more than a million in 2012. Piedmont, where the outdoor events were held, attracted almost 4.3 million visitors in 2012, according to figures from Turismo Torino.
Finally, in Vancouver, overnight visitors increased from 4.1 million in 2009 to 4.4 million in 2013.
"As host to the 2010 Games, British Columbia was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase international exposure and awareness of British Columbia," Clare Mason, spokeswoman for Destination British Columbia, said in an email. "For those two weeks in February, with a worldwide audience of 3.5 billion, the eyes of the world were focused on British Columbia."
Though city officials in Nagano did not respond to a request for information, anecdotal evidence from a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee suggests that the community has had a similar experience.
"In recent years, buses running between Nagano and Hakuba, where Alpine and Nordic skiing events were held, are packed with foreign skiers from mostly Australia and Asian countries during weekends in winter," Toru Kobayashi, who lives in Nagano, said in an email. "There are also hotels and small accommodation facilities managed by Australians in Hakuba."
And that's just tourism. The games also have helped with economic development efforts, be it convention business or luring new companies to the regions.
Salt Lake City, for example, is now home to Goldman Sachs' second-largest office in the world, Beck said. It hosts a trade show for outdoor retailers, and Beck said 34 companies with ties to the industry – including ski makers Salomon and Rossignol – have moved there since 2002.
"When you talk about developing the areas, clearly that was part of the goal. But it was much larger than that," Beck said in a telephone interview. "Our overall economy has grown because of worldwide recognition of Salt Lake as a city."
With Sochi a day-long trip from North America, at best, it is unlikely to see a huge influx of tourists from the United States and Canada.
Bud Bellone, who came to the Olympics from St. Louis with his son, said their trip was great, and he would like to come back to Russia to see Moscow and St. Petersburg. But he doubts he'd make another trip to Sochi.
"It wasn't easy to get here. You have the visa, the spectator's pass, the visa support letter," Bellone said, listing the documents visitors needed for the Olympics. "For me to come back and do a cultural tour in St. Petersburg is one thing. To come hang out on a beach? Probably not."
But Sochi is accessible for Russians and Europeans, and it's that market Sochi hoped to draw with the Olympics.
"The Olympic Games has provided a huge impetus boosting the development of tourism in this region," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Saturday. "This region has a great future ahead of it in terms of economic development and in terms of its image and reputation as a large, international-class resort."
Vladimir Milchakov had visited Sochi about seven years ago and was stunned to see how much the area had changed when he arrived from Moscow for the games.
"There was nothing in the mountains," he said through an interpreter. "There was only one gondola there, and almost no hotels. But now it's like a city there. There was only one road to Krasnaya Polyana, which was dangerous to drive. Now it's super safe.
"It's a full, year-round resort," Milchakov said.
So much so, Marat Kodzaer said, he might do more than make a return visit.
"I want to move here," he said.