Oct 14, 2016

Abkhazia: “Melancholic Tourism” Attracts over 1.5 Million Visitors

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Despite practical difficulties, numbers of foreign tourists visiting Abkhazia have been soaring. Only this year, 1.5 million tourists are expected to visit the country, in comparison with 92,000 tourists a decade ago. The Minister of Resorts and Tourism in Sukhum, Mr Avtandil Gartskiya, emphasized that the money brought in by foreign tourists is essential in Abkhazia’s survival as a viable state in the future. According to the The New York Times,  whilst tourists visit Abkhazia for the sun and sceneries, they mainly go for “melancholic tourism” – the idea of tourists revisiting their childhood or newer generations wanting to explore a communist past untouched by development. Abkhazia’s former Foreign Minister, Mr Maxim Gundjia, reinforced this observation and compared a trip to Abkhazia to tourists visiting Cuba. 


Below is an article published by the New York Times:

A promenade outside the 240-room Amra International in Gagra, Georgia. After a long slump, the colonnaded property is enjoying something of a renaissance. 

 Employed for nearly four decades at a sanitarium once so exclusive that only the very well connected or heavily armed could get a booking, Tatyana Gaivoronskaya grew accustomed to freeloading Communist Party big shots and the unruly gunmen who took over their fusty rooms.

These days, however, she serves a new and, in these parts, unusual clientele: vacationers who actually pay their own bills.

After a long slump that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued through a vicious war of secession along Georgia’s Black Sea coast, the Soviet Riviera, or at least the bits that survived the fighting, is back in business.

Unlike the once grand Gagripsh sanitarium just down the road, now abandoned and daubed with graffiti, the colonnaded property where Ms. Gaivoronskaya ladles out cabbage soup for tourists from Russia is enjoying something of a renaissance, albeit a decidedly backward one.

The service, even the management admits, is terrible. “We would not even qualify for two stars,” said Yuri Kurtaba, the sanitarium’s director of maintenance. There is no room service and no Wi-Fi outside a tiny area near the lobby, and the swimming pool has been empty since the war.

But its 240 rooms, repainted and cleared of cobwebs, were all booked throughout the summer season this year, and over half — particularly those with balconies overlooking the sea — still had guests in October.

The Amra offers a pebbly beach on the Black Sea, a statue of Lenin in the lobby, high-ceilinged rooms with chandeliers, bad plumbing and rotary telephones, as well as glorious sunshine well into late fall.

Nobody comes to Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia still scarred by the fighting of 1992-93, expecting to be pampered. Instead, they come for sun, sublime scenery, low prices — and memories.

And nowhere offers more of those than Ms. Gaivoronskaya’s sanitarium, a gloomy jewel in a long chain of Soviet-era hostelries dotted along a coastline where Stalin kept a favorite dacha and where Nikita S. Khrushchev was vacationing when he learned he had been ousted.

Ms. Gaivoronskaya ’s sanitarium is no longer closed to the public, as it was in the old days, but otherwise everything is left pretty much as it was. It offers a pebbly beach on the Black Sea, a statue of Lenin in the lobby, high-ceilinged rooms with chandeliers, bad plumbing and rotary telephones, as well as glorious sunshine well into late fall.

Built in 1952 as a retreat for Stalin’s secret police and taken over in the 1960s by the Communist Party Central Committee, it used to be called the 17th Party Congress Sanitarium. It now calls itself the Amra International, a rebranding that has not improved the service but has added a dash of 21st-century aspiration to one of the world’s most alluring, and strangest, vacation destinations.

Russia’s brief invasion of Georgia in August 2008, launched in part from a Russian military base in Abkhazia, put a damper on the summer season that year. But it caused no long-term damage, unlike the vicious fighting of the early 1990s, which wrecked many hotels and turned others into refugee camps.

Avtandil Gartskiya, the minister of resorts and tourism in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, a quasi country whose existence only Russia and three other nations recognize, described the money generated by foreign visitors as “the driver, the locomotive” of Abkhazia’s survival as a viable state in the future.

He acknowledged that luring tourists from anywhere else but Russia was going to be a hard sell, especially as Abkhazia’s only civilian airport closed more than 20 years ago and the only way to enter the territory is on foot across border crossings staffed by officious Russian border guards. Russians do not need a visa, but nearly everyone else does.

Georgia, which insists that Abkhazia is part of its own territory, has thrown up further obstacles by threatening criminal prosecution of anyone who visits the “occupied territory” by way of Russia, the easiest route in, instead of through a remote border crossing in the far west of Georgia. Nonetheless, Mr. Gartskiya said, the number of foreign visitors is soaring, with around 1.5 million expected this year, compared with 92,000 a decade ago. More than 90 percent of these are from Russia, with nearly all the rest coming from former Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

This lopsided reliance on a single country to fill hotel beds shows just how dependent Abkhazia is on Russia. Yet, unlike South Ossetia, a second and even smaller breakaway enclave of Georgia, Abkhazia has shown no desire to be annexed by Moscow and wants to make a serious stab at being its own country.

This is not an easy task when most of the world insists it does not exist, when more than half the prewar population of half a million has fled, often at gunpoint, and when the tea and tobacco plantations that sustained the economy in the Soviet era now mostly produce nothing but weeds.

Otar Ashba, director of the Solnechny Resort, a vast 1970s complex near Stalin’s old dacha, said he would like to get more non-Russian guests but scoffed at the idea of countries like Nauru, one of three other states that recognizes Abkhazia, ever providing any guests.

“They have fewer people than we do, and they are sinking into the sea,” he said of the Pacific island nation, whose population is about 10,000.

The Amra’s dining room. The service, even the management admits, is terrible. “We would not even qualify for two stars,” said Yuri Kurtaba, the director of maintenance.

Russian tourists, even if they are mostly on a budget and elderly Soviet nostalgia buffs, are already breathing some new life into the economy and onto streets left eerily empty after the war by the flight of ethnic Georgians, Greeks and others unexcited by Abkhaz nationalism.

Starved of investment to build enough new hotels and upgrade old ones, Abkhazia also offers Russians a time-warped wonderland of Soviet architecture, largely untouched by development.

“Coming here is like going to Cuba,” said Maxim Gundjia, Abkhazia’s former foreign minister. “It is a retreat into childhood.”

Abkhazia, he added, is made for “melancholic tourism,” its aged but still grand sanitariums short on comfort but rich in reminders of a vanished world.

Svetlana Kalinskaya, a 70-year-old Russian retiree from Rostov-on-Don, said she first visited Abkhazia as a child and, after vacationing in recent years in Egypt and Turkey, decided to return to the sanitariums of the Black Sea.

“Compared with Turkey, the service here is zero,” she said, strolling with an elderly friend under the stone entry arch of the former 17th Party Congress Sanitarium. “But it is paradise.”

The once grand Gagripsh sanitarium just down the road from the Amra is now abandoned.CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Asked whether she minded Lenin looming over the lobby, Ms. Kalinskaya said the statue only brought back happy memories of a “time when we all lived together in one big country.”

Some younger Russians also come for the experience of being back in the Soviet Union, even though they are often too young to remember the real thing.

Sergey Rogulov, a 39-year-old driver from St. Petersburg, said he liked the shabby Stalin-era interiors — “it is like time travel back to the U.S.S.R.” — but he mostly came for the weather and budget prices, which are lower than in foreign resorts and even those in nearby Sochi or Russian-ruled Crimea.

Ms. Gaivoronskaya , the veteran sanitarium worker, said she missed the old days, when guests tended not to complain much because the state was paying.

She recalled a parade of Communist Party officials, including Boris N. Yeltsin, who visited with his family while still a provincial official, long before he became Russia’s first president and the destroyer of the Soviet Union.

Then, as the sun-kissed lands of Abkhazia turned into a bloody war zone in the 1990s, the officials all fled and separatist fighters checked in. They commandeered the sanitarium as a barracks and command post during their victorious war with Georgia.

The only other guests at the time were gunmen from the Russian region of Chechnya, like Shamil Basayev, who fought alongside the Abkhaz with Russian support and later went on to become Russia’s most-wanted terrorist. He married a local woman in the sanitarium’s restaurant, she said.

Ms. Gaivoronskaya credits the presence of so many armed men with saving the sanitarium from the plunder and mayhem that wrecked so much else along the Black Sea coast. They frightened away all the unarmed guests but, in need of food and a bed in between battles, they protected the premises and respected the staff, she said.

The new paying guests, particularly the younger ones, are more demanding, she said. But their money has allowed her to keep working and the sanitarium to stay open — and to preserve for a new generation a “small taste of what life was like before everything fell apart.”