Abkhazia - The Black Sea Region's Best Kept Secret, by Bruce Talley
There have been unforeseen consequences of Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia in 2008. Since the war and conflicts of the 1990's there has been no Georgian police, governmental, customs or military presence in Abkhazia except a small garrison in the remote Kodor Valley. While the conflict was being fought in South Ossetia, Abkhaz forces chased the Georgian military out of Kodor. So, the Georgians are gone.
It is apparent to a visitor in Abkhazia that the Georgians are not coming back. In the aftermath of the Ossetian conflict, Russia formally recognized Abkhazia's independence. Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit. Other nations, including Belarus and Ecuador are considering recognition. In August of this year, Russia announced that they would spend $500 million on infrastructure and security in Abkhazia. Turkish merchant shipping has returned and the Russian Coast Guard is protecting it from Georgian harassment.
In September, I asked tourists from Estonia and Russia how they felt about the Russian army base in Abkhazia. They told me that they had been coming for years, but that their party was larger in size because their friends now felt safe there. They were clearly grateful to Russian soldiers for the protection. I believe that Abkhazia's cause is just and that Russia is correct to offer protection from Georgian threats and aggression. But the issue with tourists is safety.
An Abkhaz government source told me that tourism is up about 100% since 2008. The increase in tourism was the first thing I noticed on my visits this year. There are more new construction projects and hotels being rebuilt. I had conversations with Abkhaz people who can feel that there are big changes coming after years of impoverished isolation.
Most tourists in Abkhazia come from Russia. Russia is the largest, closest neighbor. The only other one that shares a border is Georgia. Abkhazia sits on the Black Sea with the Caucasus Mountains so close in places that it seems they will tumble into the sea. Within just a few miles of the coast, elevations reach 16,000 feet. So, it is possible on a hot summer day to sit on the beach and look through palm trees at snow-capped mountains. In addition to the mountains and beaches, there are spectacular lakes, caves and an important monastery for Orthodox Christians. Because of its mild climate and beauty, Abkhazia was regarded during the Soviet era as the premier vacation destination in the entire country. Stalin had 5 homes there, Khrushchev 4 and Gorbachev had 1. Foreign dignitaries and heads of state were often guests at the resort at Pitsunda.
Because of the war with Georgia in 1992-93 there was a great deal of damage to the infrastructure and tourist facilities. The borders with Russia were closed until 1999 as Russia tried to mediate the conflict, but Abkhazia had no interest in being reintegrated into Georgia. However, the war damage and years of decay due to isolation have taken a toll. There is a need for investment to rebuild tourist facilities and infrastructure.
Despite the fact that most of the accommodations are of aged Soviet vintage or very modest guest houses, they are almost completely occupied during the tourist season. Abkhazia has a bright future as a tourist destination for millions of Russians , Ukrainians and others. With widespread international recognition of Abkhazia's independence, money would flow more easily for all manner of projects including hotels, resorts, shopping and entertainment. To date, the investment capital has been almost exclusively Russian.
The airport in Sukhum is closed, but Abkhaz authorities are hopeful that flights from Russia will start in 2010. This will be a boon to tourism. Now, tourists come great distances by airplane, bus or train from all over Russia to cross the border into Abkhazia. Trains operate in Abkhazia, but almost exclusively for freight. Passenger train service is expected to increase quickly. Every week huge rail shipments of construction materials, including gravel, are sent to Russia from Abkhazia for a massive construction project. The Russian government has committed billions for infrastructure and venue construction at Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympiad. Sochi is about 20 miles north of the border with Abkhazia.
In Abkhazia the major resorts and population centers are very close to Russia and the Winter Olympic sites. The resort town of Gagra is only about 15 miles from the border. Pitsunda is about 5 miles further down the beach and the capital, Sukhum, is only about 70 miles from Russia. This makes them attractive for Russian vacationers. An acquaintance with business ties in Krasnodar, Russia told me recently "there is no way that Russia will allow Georgia to disrupt the Olympic Games by invading Abkhazia." He feels that Abkhazia is secure from Georgian aggression. There has not been a World Cup or Olympic Games held on Russian soil since the boycotted 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. For Russia, the Olympics are a very important and prestigious event that they plan to impress the world with.
Clearly Russia has a vested interest in Abkhazia's future. The Russian Federation spent years attempting to mediate the conflict with Georgia and when that failed to produce security for Abkhazia from Georgian aggression, they acted to protect Abkhazia. This has made Abkhazia a safe place for tourism and a stable neighbor for the Winter Games to be held in Sochi in 2014.
Source: Bruce Talley's Blog