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Abkhazia Sees Tourism Boom

Russians flock to breakaway territory despite accommodation shortage and poor service.
By Anaid Gogoryan

Abkhazia, which was recognised as independent by Russia a year ago, is hailing its best ever year for tourism since the territory broke away from Georgia after defeating its army in 1993.



Official figures show 88,865 tourists stayed in Abkhazian hotels and resorts in the first nine months of the year, up from 68,905 in all of 2008. More than 700,000 trips and excursions were organised by travel agencies for the visitors, who were overwhelmingly Russian.



“Our tourists are not rich, in the main they were people of the middle class,” said Vyacheslav Bartsits, deputy tourism minister in the Abkhazian government.



The tourism boom was helped by the global financial crisis, since Abkhazia’s resorts are far cheaper than those in neighbouring regions of Russia, and gave a major boost to the government’s finances.



Tax ministry figures showed the budget received 150 million roubles (more than five million US dollars) from businesses linked to tourism, and expected an extra 20 million by the end of the year.



Officials are now planning ways to expand the sector, which is reliant on the beaches of the Black Sea coast, perhaps by building facilities in the remote, mountainous Kodor Gorge, captured from Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.



“In future, the Kodor Gorge will be one of the major tourist areas. We hope that winter sports will develop, with the construction of ski-runs and other facilities. Abkhazia has many mineral springs, and this gives the possibility of expanding outside the traditional season,” Bartsits said.



Because of the massive influx of tourists, officials say the country had trouble accommodating them all. Abkhazia has around 13,000 beds for tourists, including around 1,500 in three Russian military sanatoria in Sukhum (which Georgians call Sukhumi) and Gudauta. The state budget made six million roubles in tax from people renting out their spare rooms, according to the tax ministry.



“This is much more than 2007 and 2008 added together,” said Vakhtang Pipiya, tax and customs minister.



Renting out such rooms to tourists is a crucial source of income for people in Abkhazia, where the economy was devastated by the war and the mass exodus of ethnic Georgians that accompanied Tbilisi’s defeat. Swathes of eastern Abkhazia remain sparsely populated, and even central Sukhum is still scarred by gutted buildings and bullet holes.



Only Venezuela and Nicaragua have followed Russia’s lead in recognising Abkhazia’s independence, but the presence of Russian troops on the river that forms Abkhazia’s eastern border appears to have reassured tourists that holidaying in Abkhazia is safe, despite Georgian protests.



"Everything that happens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is regulated by the law ‘On the Occupied Territories’ so any activities that go against this document, including tourists' activities, is illegal," said David Darchisashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's committee for European integration.



Such warnings mean nothing to Elena Tarba, a pensioner in Sukhum. She has rented out her flat for several years, and said she had never known a year as successful as this one.



“I pray they will be like this in future. I earned 20,000 roubles and am delighted,” she said.



Ruslan Tvanba runs a small hotel in Sukhum, where guests pay 800 roubles for one of the 18 double rooms.



“This year the situation was better than last, although the number of guests was still average,” he said.



A survey of tourists by the Academy of Science and the president’s Centre of Strategic Investigations showed that more than two-thirds of visitors to the region came to relax on the beaches, and slightly fewer said they were drawn by the exotic location. Almost two-thirds said they had been satisfied by their stay and slightly less than a third said they had not.



Those respondents who were dissatisfied complained about the large number of destroyed buildings, poor service, rubbish on the streets, and the difficulty of crossing the Russian-Abkhazian border.



“We know our weak points. This is the quality of service. The managers of facilities must answer for this and spend money on training their staff. We understand that, because of the short season, it is hard to find specialists. And as for the border crossing, there are long queues during the season and this created mass discontent from the tourists,” Bartsits said.



“In future Russia will invest money in building a terminal. We are hoping that the Sukhum airport will open, and the railway will be developed.”



Six new hotels have been opened in the last year, funded by Russian investment, and officials aim to be able to receive 80-100,000 visitors at any one time. But Beslan Barateliya, an expert in the local tourism sector, warned that the mass influx of visitors had not been simply because they liked Abkhazia so much. The economic crisis had played a major role, and officials should not be complacent.



“I am not convinced that next year will be a lot better, because we have not changed the quality of our facilities, and service remains poor. In fact the influx of tourists will be negative, because it will not stimulate reforms. If we position ourselves as a country for tourists then we have to understand that the external situation can change to our disadvantage,” he said.



“We need to increase the quality of service and educate the people who work in the sector. The state must play a special role in this.”



But, although some visitors to Abkhazia would agree that work needs to be done to improve its facilities, the country has won converts as well. Many people who come once, come again, such as Bruce Talley, a rare American visitor to the country.



He learned about Abkhazia when visiting resorts in neighbouring parts of Russia, and has not regretted making the trip over the border.



“In Sochi there are traffic jams, and here it is very beautiful. I was in Gagra, at Lake Ritsa, in New Afon, in the cave there. I liked it very much and I will come back to Abkhazia,” he said.



Anaid Gogorian is a reporter from Chegemskaya Pravda and a participant in IWPR's Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. Giorgi Kutaradze in Tbilisi also contributed to this report.