Georgia eyes tourist future for one-time rebel hotspot

On a lush strip of Georgia's Black Sea coast holiday-makers bask in the sun as construction crews hammer away building beachfront luxury hotels, in what was once an isolated, decrepit rebel enclave.

Adjara, a semi-tropical region on Georgia's southwestern border with Turkey, was ruled for some 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union by Aslan Abashidze, a Moscow-backed separatist strongman who ran it as his personal fiefdom.

Cut off from the rest of the country by armed guards, and a hotbed of organised crime, Adjara's economy stagnated and its long beaches, famed as a Soviet-era resort destination, lay mostly empty.

Holiday-makers bask in the sun in the beach town of Batumi, Georgia on September 2 in what was once an isolated, decrepit rebel enclave on the shore's of the Black Sea

But this summer, six years after a bloodless Tbilisi-backed revolt sent Abashidze fleeing to Moscow, Adjara's beaches were again crowded with tourists.

"It's hard to imagine how much has changed in the last six years, everybody feels it," said Levan Varshalomidze, the region's 38-year-old governor, as he walked through the capital Batumi's old town pointing out renovation works on 19th-century mansions and hotels.

The transformation of Adjara, and Batumi in particular, is a pet project of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who counts the region's return to Tbilisi's control as one of his biggest domestic successes since coming to power in 2004.

Adjara stands in marked contrast to neighbouring Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two other Moscow-backed separatist regions that were essentially lost by Georgia after its 2008 war with Russia.

In the last six years, Georgia's government and private investors have pumped nearly three billion dollars (2.3 billion euros) into rebuilding the region's shattered infrastructure, renovating derelict buildings and raising new hotels, Varshalomidze said.

From practically nothing under Abashidze, foreign direct investment in the region totalled 473 million dollars (368 million euros) between 2004 and last year.

The changes are most striking along Batumi's beachfront, where an eight-kilometre (five-mile) boulevard now runs along the sea between rows of palm trees and past newly built restaurants and cafes.

A five-star Sheraton hotel opened near the beachfront this summer and the lighthouse-inspired building now dominates Batumi's skyline. Three more high-rise international hotels -- a Radisson, a Kempinski and a Hyatt -- are under construction and are expected to open in the next two years.

-- The city is completely unrecognisable --

The number of visitors to Adjara has already soared, from fewer than 100,000 per year under Abashidze to 550,000 last year and 740,000 so far this year. Varshalomidze said he expects visitor numbers to hit two million by 2012.

Most are Georgian, but more than a third of tourists this year came from abroad, mainly Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Varshalomidze said the government hopes to attract more tourists from those countries and to increase the number of visitors from other places where Adjara is already well-known, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltics.

The government's efforts in Adjara have not won universal praise, with some in Georgia's opposition saying Saakashvili has become obsessed with the project and is allocating vast sums without proper planning or oversight.

"Batumi is ruled exclusively and personally by Saakashvili," said Levan Berdzenishvili, an activist with the opposition Republican Party from Batumi.

"There is no transparency in the spending of public funds or in relations with foreign investors. Some major projects have been implemented without anyone knowing how they were financed or by whom."

Residents in Batumi seemed overwhelmingly supportive, however, and stunned by how much their city has changed.

"It's fantastic. Every day you see work being done and a new building going up. The city is completely unrecognisable," said Ramaz Diasamidze, 31, who owns a variety store near the beachfront.

"Before it was impossible to get a job, now everyone is working. In five years this is going to be a new, modern city," he said.

With the rest of Georgia's economy struggling, Adjara's boom is even attracting new residents. Batumi's population, which has already risen from 100,000 in 2004 to 140,000 now, is expected to hit 200,000 in the next two years, Varshalomidze said.

The region's transformation has been such a success, Varshalomidze said, that Tbilisi hopes it can serve as an example for the country's other rebel territories of what reintegration into Georgia can mean.

Although Adjara has a distinct culture stemming from its close links with Turkey, including a strong minority Muslim population, separatism under Abashidze was never heartfelt.

Unlike the Abkhaz and Ossetians, Adjarans are ethnic Georgians and the region did not suffer from the bloody ethnic conflicts that saw Abkhazia and South Ossetia break from central control in the early 1990s.

But Varshalomidze says Adjara can nonetheless stand as a showcase, in particular for Abkhazia, another region once famed for its Soviet-era Black Sea resorts.

"They can see what is happening in Batumi and this is a good example of how they would be developed within Georgia," he said. "And even though I'm from Adjara, I can say that Abkhazia has 10 times more potential."

source AFP

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