Abkhazia, a 5.000 sq km territory where the Caucasus Mountains rise from the Black Sea, with a warm sea and sub-tropical species of exotic fruit, flowers and trees, was a paradise for many citizens of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries before the bloody conflict of 1992-93, when the region de facto seceded from Georgia.
Abkhazia, a once beautiful spot on the Black Sea coast, whose share in the Georgian Soviet Republic’s tourism industry at one time reached 40%, now lies in ruins. Sporadic armed clashes and blasts still occur here. Despite the security concerns and shaky peace agreement, Abkhazia’s beauty and inexpensive tourism industry still attract some foreigners, mainly from Russia.
“The number of tourists that have come to Abkhazia this summer has almost reached pre-war levels,” de facto Tourism Minister of Abkhazia, Astamur Adleiba, told Civil Georgia. He said t! hat most tourists arrive from Russia. Others come from Belarus, the Ukraine and other CIS countries.
According to estimates from the Georgian State Department of Statistics, more than 202,000 tourists annually visited Abkhazia before the war of 1992-3. Astamur Adlieba reported that over 45,000 tourists came to Gagra, near the Russian border, this summer.
Georgian authorities are doubtful that these reports are accurate., However, they do admit that Russians continue visiting Abkhazia for vacations. “The separatists’ claims that Abkhazia had 160,000 visitors this year are exaggerated. The Black Sea shore is deserted. The Sukhumi regime hopes to attract tourists to Abkhazia with such false propaganda,” head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz Tourism Department, Givi Mishveliani, told Civil Georgia. However, Georgia itself does not have data detailing the number of tourists visiting Abkhazia.
Tourism in Abkhazia takes place illegally without any agreement with the Georgian government. Tbilisi’s! inability to extend control over the breakaway region and the recent restoration of the railway and maritime communications between Sochi (Russia) and Sukhumi add to this problem.
Russian tourists do not need a visa to enter Abkhazia; conversely, a visa regime is in place between Russia and Georgia. Yet it is interesting to note that, under a 1994 CIS agreement, Russia has imposed economic sanctions against Abkhazia.
The border between Russia and Abkhazia lies along the Psou River. At the Vesyolaya checkpoint, a local officer registers passport data of the incoming travelers and gives them the go-ahead to enter Abkhazia.
“It was not hard at all to get to Sukhumi. I had to show my passport only when crossing the Psou River. They just wrote my name; that was it. I never thought that it would be that easy to go to Abkhazia,” 25-year-old Olya Matvieva from the Russian city of Tver, told Civil Georgia.
She arrived at Adler (a Russian town near Abkhazia) from Moscow by train with her family. Then they took a taxi to Sukhumi. After spending 4 days there, though, the Russian family left Abkhazia without any noteworthy impressions.
“No amusement, fun or emotions. Sukhumi was terribly boring for me. I could not get rid of the feeling that something bad was coming. Therefore, we left for Sochi after four days,” says Olya.
95% of recent tourists used the services of up to 20 Russian travel agencies to go to Abkhazia. The other 5% traveled to Abkhazia by private invitation.
Restoration of the railway link last December and ferry traffic in July (between Sochi and Sukhumi) make it easer for Russians to travel to Abkhazia. Despite protest from Tbilisi, railway and maritime communication still operate between Abkhazia and Russia.
“Last year in Yalta, where the conference of the State Tourism Authorities of the CIS Countries was held, we urged our Russian counterparts not to support the Abkhaz separatis! ts in developing the tourism industry. They replied that the Russian side is not involved in the tourism business in Abkhazia; that the state can not interfere in the affairs of private entities,” First Deputy Chairman of the Georgian State Department of Tourism and Resorts, Gigi Kuparadze, told Civil Georgia.
Opponents of the Abkhaz de facto President, Vladislav Ardzinba, claim that the tourist business in the breakaway region is controlled by his daughter, Medina Ardzinba. Hence Russian travel companies arrange trips for tourists with Ms. Ardzinba’s tour operators.
Cheap, but Dangerous
The Georgian embassy in Russia issued a travel warning for Abkhazia in July, urging the Russian citizens to refrain from traveling in Abkhazia. “In this region [Abkhazia], serious crimes against foreign citizens have become common. The criminals from other countries, including Russia, have found a safe haven in Abkhazia,” the Georgian embassy’s statement said, adding that Georgia cannot guarantee the safety of foreign citizens in Abkhazia.
Astamur Adleiba, the Minister of Tourism of breakaway Abkhazia, told a Civil Georgia correspondent, “you can visit Abkhazia, but I guess security would be a problem for you [like for any other Georgian].”
Of course Russians feel much safer in Abkhazia than do Georgians, but they also often become the victims of crime. Georgian media reported in July that even the governor of Russia’s Saratov District was robbed in Abkhazia.
“More than 20 Russian tourists were robbed already this year in Abkhazia. There’s total ruthlessness and disorder,” said Givi Mishveliani, head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz Tourism Department.
Despite the insecurity, Russians continue to travel to Abkhazia. Some say low prices really do make tourism in Abkhazia attractive to Russians.
One night at the Stalin Villa in Gagra costs USD 25. According to the Tourism Minister of the self-declared Abkhaz Republic, the lowest hotel price is $12, including meals.
The slow train from Russia’s Black Sea city of Sochi to Sukhumi costs only 30 Russian Rubles per person (approximately USD 1).
Of course, services in Abkhazia are far below international standards. Tourist facilities subordinated to the defense authorities during the Soviet period (Moscow Military District, Air Defense Forces), have managed to maintain their old infrastructure to a certain extent. There are 2 hotels and 3 sanatoriums in Sukhumi. Russian tourists mainly stay at these facilities.
Abkhazia’s beauty is out of Georgians’ sight and the current standstill in the conflict’s resolution makes many people pessimistic over being able to vacation in Abkhazia in the near future.
“I used to go there every summer. It was fantastic. I am afraid I won’t be able to see that beauty any more,” Tbilisite Naili Nozadze, 57, says.
By Goga Chanadiri,
Soso Khachidze contributed to this article