Georgia’s Black Sea tourist industry revived by Armenian holidaymakers.
By Eteri Turadze in Batumi
“A bottle of Georgian wine please,” ordered the customer at a seaside café. “Wine? Sorry,” said the waiter, “ we’ve only got Armenian cognac….”
This recent exchange occurred not in Russia where Georgian wine is currently banned but in Georgia’s Black Sea resort of Batumi, which is enjoying an unprecedented influx of Armenian tourists.
According to Georgia’s department for tourism and resorts, 2006 is breaking all records for the number of foreign tourists visiting the country since it gained independence in 1992. The Black Sea autonomous republic of Ajaria and its capital Batumi are the main destinations, with a total of 250,000-300,000 holiday- makers expected there this year.
Of the foreign tourists, 70 per cent are from neighbouring landlocked Armenia. “We expect around 55,000 visitors from Armenia during the holiday season. This is three times as many as last year,” said Saba Kiknadze head of the local tourist department.
The local government in Ajaria was busy advertising the attractions of its resorts to Armenia long before the summer season started. It spent 20,000 laris (around 11,000 US dollars) printing publicity booklets, calendars, maps and films that were distributed in Armenia.
In May, the Georgian authorities opened a special train service from Yerevan to Batumi and back, especially for Armenian tourists. The train runs every other day and a ticket costs between 55 and 85 lari (around 30-50 dollars).
Suren Mkrtchian said his holiday company Eurasia and other Armenian tourist operator rent out hotels and bring their customers directly to them, generally for two weeks.
The prices in Ajaria, with a bed costing between around ten and 100 dollars a night, were affordable for those holidaymakers from Armenia who spoke to IWPR.
“Prices are normal,” said Levon Alkhazian, who is spending the second summer running here. “Batumi is gradually becoming a European-style resort.”
Diana Haikian came to take a holiday in the resort town of Kobuleti in Ajaria on the recommendation of her cousin and used the new train service. She is with a group of 15 friends and colleagues.
“We are being served well at the hotel,” said Diana. “There are places where we can sit and have fun in the evenings. We’ve met a lot of our acquaintances from Yerevan. I like it here but I have nothing to compare it with. I have never been to European resorts and Russian resorts are both more expensive and dull.”
Diana said she liked Ajaria so much she hoped to spend her honeymoon here next year.
Tourist department head Saba Kiknadze says a number of factors are contributing to the Armenian tourism boom in Ajaria.
“The first is, of course, the change in the situation in Georgia in general,” said Kiknadze. “The image of our country is much better today than a couple of years ago.
“We will soon place our advertisement clips about Georgia on CNN and BBC and things with tourism will improve even further.”
But he admitted that infrastructure in Georgia is in need of improvement, “You cannot do everything at once. We have changed a lot in Ajaria since last year.”
Armenian capital has flooded into the region in the wake of Armenian tourists.
Armenian prime minister Andranik Margarian visited Batumi in May and won the support of the head of the local government Levan Varshalomidze for facilitating Armenian investment. Last year, President Robert Kocharian told Varshalomidze, “The big number of Armenian tourists who visited Ajaria this summer makes it clear that economic cooperation should be stepped up.”
Armenian investment has been focussed so far on small businesses, such as family hotels and restaurants rather than large infrastructure projects. The cafes and other eateries have turned into small islands of Armenia, serving Armenian food and playing Armenian music.
The founder of an Armenian chain of restaurants Vartan Makarchian said proudly that the Georgian president himself had visited one of his outlets.
“Mikheil Saakashvili has had lunch with us twice,” said Makarchian. “We were waiting for him yesterday too but he did not come. Our popularity shot up after his visits.”
Gogi Baghdadishvili’s small café has a menu in four languages – Georgian, Russian, English and Armenian.
“Yes, the Armenians speak Russian too but their appetite will improve if they read the menu in their native tongue,” confided Baghdadishvili. “This is business and the main rule is to attract customers.”
But not all the locals are happy with the Armenian invasion.
“I don’t understand why we have to adapt to the visitors,” complained Nargiz Diasamidze, a resident of Kobuleti. “It’s the tourists themselves who should accept our customs. You can hear Armenian music everywhere and Armenian meals are being sold everywhere. Don’t they like ours?”
“First, the Armenian will first rent the hotels here and then they will buy them,” said Nugzar Chkonia, a worried Batumi resident.
But Guram Kharazi, who owns a private hotel in Kobuleti, is delighted with the influx of Armenian capital: he has rented out his hotel to an Armenian tourist agent.
“I used to spend the whole season looking for tourists and serving them but can relax now,” said Kharazi. “I’ve been paid well and I will never sell my hotel, whatever money they offer me.”
Eteri Turadze is a reporter for the Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi.