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Georgia: Skiers Jump-Start Economy

Mountain resort popular with “New Georgians” is bucking the country’s depressing economic outlook.
By Mari Betlemidze

“Wishing you a long, long winter!” That is how residents of Bakuriani, a village in the Georgian mountains and a burgeoning ski resort, greeted each other during the 2004 New Year celebrations.

The greeting, traditional for this place, has a special meaning this year, as preparations are now being completed for one of the largest investment projects in Georgia to begin this spring.

The project, named Didveli, involves building an international ski complex in Bakuriani. It is worth an estimated 65-70 million euro and is the initiative of the Kazbegi company, the successful Georgian beer producer.

Kazbegi president and parliamentary deputy Gogi Topadze, who is also president of Georgia’s Ski Sports Federation, said that they plan to build four luxury hotels with their own swimming pools, golf club and tennis courts; a skating rink and exhibition and concert halls; as well as a network of cinemas, restaurants, cafés and bars.

This will put Bakuriani, situated 1,700 metres up in the hills of central Georgia, on a level with or even ahead of the country’s other well-known ski resort, Gudauri.

Impoverished Georgia has its fair share of wealthy businessmen. Known as the “New Georgians”, many are the kind of entrepreneurs the republic’s new president Mikheil Saakashvili wants to encourage to give the economy a lift – while others are likely to be the targets of his high-profile anti-corruption campaign.

In Bakuriani, the expensive cars - Nissans, Lincolns and gigantic Hummers - stand out in the humble village streets among the wooden log houses with their steep roofs. The cars are especially numerous here in February, the high point of the ski season.

Many top businessmen have private villas here. Deep inside a huge park you can see the many wings of the house of Badri Patarkatsishvili, former right-hand man of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and, like him, the subject of a Russian arrest warrant. Last winter, his neighbours say, they saw a whole fleet of snowmobiles and vehicles bringing mountain horses here.

Another, only slightly smaller, fenced estate belongs to Georgian oligarch Bidzine Ivanishvili. Construction of a three-storey building with several entrances on the snow-covered field is almost finished, and decoration work is already underway.

The locals do not mind where the money is coming from. They rely on the winter tourist season to earn them enough to live for the rest of the year.

A family in the village can earn up to 4,000 US dollars over the three-and-a-half-month season. “Those of us who have cars work as taxi-drivers, those who can ski train the tourists and those who have an apartment, skis or ‘Buran’ snow tractor rent them out. That’s how we live,” said Gela, a taxi-driver.

Officials are hoping that Bakuriani is part of a positive trend. Georgia is hoping that its mountains and forests appeal to visitors, and counted 313,000 tourists, both local and foreign, last year. Locals say the real number is much higher - and certainly Bakuriani is already overcrowded in the winter season with record numbers of guests.

The cost of a holiday there is out of the reach of most Georgians. A family of four would need to spend at least 350 dollars for a week, not including the hire of skis. But if the visitor wants a higher level of service, that sum would not last a day.

To live at the Vera Palace, the only five-star hotel in Bakuriani, costs 100 dollars a day. A Christmas tree standing in the lobby of the hotel is decorated with banknotes from different countries, most of them Georgian lari and euro. On New Year’s Eve, all 35 double and eight deluxe rooms were taken.

Topadze’s big construction project will expand the resort even further. In an interview with IWPR, he declined to say when it will be completed and to name partners who are sharing the costs of the project.

“The project is being carried out by a Canadian firm and an Austrian company, [both of whom] have extensive experience in places like this one,” Topadze said. “Many well-known businessmen, including foreign ones, are involved through supply and construction contracts, but the majority stake will always remain with the Georgian side. We have already purchased plots of land and rented the mountains on which we plan to build the new skiing lines.”

Gigi Kuparadze, deputy head of Georgia’s tourism department, said the project was receiving the benefit of government tax breaks and VAT exemption, designed to boost tourism.

If the Didveli project succeeds, Topadze said, similar projects might be launched in other mountainous places of the Caucasus.

“If they do build, there will be jobs, and what can beat that?” asked Gela, the taxi-driver.

Pointing at a huge estate with a four-storey mansion behind the fence, he added, “Maybe I will get some work here. My nephew works [for this guy] and gets good money. And there will still be clients for renting apartments because not many Georgians can afford an expensive hotel.”

Mari Betlemidze is a reporter for Panorama.

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