Anaklia: Georgia's forgotten Black Sea resort
Anaklia: Georgia’s forgotten Black Sea resort
Anaklia is a resort in western Georgia, near the border with Abkhazia. It is a small village in which, at first glance, here one can find everything for both the development and prosperous life – a favorable location, pleasant climate, and sea. But despite this, the people of Anaklia are struck with total unemployment and poverty. Many locals believe that the authorities lack the political will to develop Anaklia and because of this, they have to wait for the fulfillment of grandiose promises that were made more than 10 years ago.
The Georgian authorities began to develop the resort rapidly in 2010. However, after the change of power in 2012, officials in the capital have once again forgotten about Anaklia. The hopes that were reborn in 2016, when the construction of a deep-sea port began here, never lived up to the expectations. The project, from which multimillion-dollar investments, thousands of jobs, and even a geopolitical breakthrough were expected, was stopped in 2020 due to a dispute between investors and the Georgian government. Together with the suspended project, life in Anaklia also stopped.
The village of contrasts
The central street of Anaklia is beautiful, with palm trees growing along its entire length. A girl with blue hair and a large backpack stands at the bus stop, attracting attention with her bright appearance. She agrees to be photographed, but says little and refuses to be interviewed.
Her name is Tamuna, she lives in Zugdidi, the administrative center of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region, 30 kilometers away. She came to Anaklia to collect branches on the beach as she makes various decorations out of them.
Before the pandemic, she worked in a non-governmental organization, now she is out of work. She is a specialist in tourism but does not even think about looking for a job in her region. We are very surprised by this. However, the puzzle soon begins to unwrap.
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Moving away from the center of the village and the coast, one may notice how the European Anaklia disappears and the views of an ordinary Georgian village replace it. Broken and muddy streets, old houses, rickety fences, in some places old, rusted signs of apartments for rent in Georgian and Russian appear.
Locals speak sparsely and little. This is caution – on the other side of the scale is the fate of the summer season.
Empty boulevard at the beginning of the summer season
Now is the first week of summer, some time in the afternoon. We were not lucky with the weather – it is cloudy and it rains from time to time. But we do not lose hope that we will meet people on the beach. As it turns out – in vain.
On the beach of Anaklia, which is so neglected that it is difficult to perceive this place as a seaside resort, practically no one can be seen. The boulevard is also empty and it does not appear as well taken care of. Palms along the boulevard have already begun to dry up, it is unpleasant to look at it.
“Yesterday they cut the grass, it was knee-high here”, says a young woman, Nana (not her real name), who rents out bicycles and children’s cars on the boulevard. On an abandoned boulevard, her colorful bicycles draw attention from afar. Just a few days ago, she found out that from now on she will have to pay rent to the municipality, and she is not happy about it.
Nana says that for the past two years, Anaklia has no longer been able to live off tourism, which used to be the main source of survival for local residents. She is not sure whether the situation will improve this year and if she will be able to earn enough to pay rent and support her family, as Nana is the only breadwinner in her household.
Nana has been in this business for four years. Renting a bike costs 10 GEL [about $ 3.2] per hour, and a ride on a children’s car costs 5 GEL for 10 minutes. Nana says that she earns an average of four to five thousand lari [about $ 1,300-1,600] per season. With these savings, the family then survives the winter.
Anaklia is a seaside resort with sandy beaches located in the Georgian region of Samegrelo, on the border with Abkhazia, just 30 kilometers from the administrative center of Zugdidi. The village is famous for the longest in Georgia 552-meter pedestrian bridge across the Inguri River, which connects Anaklia with the neighboring village of Ganmukhuri.
In 2011, under the previous government, it was planned to grant Anaklia the status of a city. In 2012, it was announced that a new port city, Lazika, would be built in the area adjacent to Anaklia. This city was to become the second-largest in Georgia with half a million population by 2024.
Construction began on several buildings, but the project was halted in 2012 when President Mikhail Saakashvili’s party lost the election. Since then, Georgia has been ruled by the Georgian Dream party, the party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, which has little sympathy for the projects launched under Saakashvili.
According to the statistics service of Georgia, in 2014, 510 families, or about 1,400 people, lived in Anaklia. The main source of income for local residents is tourism and fishing.
The charm and sadness of a seaside town
“Living by the sea should be a luxury. But if you are not retired and do not work anywhere, you will probably starve to death”, says Tamar Shelia, owner of the Nugofamily hotel. Tamar sadly notes that the inhabitants of the seaside village are now leaving to work abroad:
“Most women leave and work as nurses in Italy. Many have already left. Only lately there have been ten women who left”.
The Tamar family has been running a family hotel in Anaklia for four years. The three-story wooden house has nine rooms for 30 people. The walls of each room are decorated with views of different countries of the world. “To make the guests happy”, the hostess tells us.
For the last two years, due to the pandemic, there have been no vacationers:
“There were no tourists. And we, too, were scared; no one was allowed into the house. And now no one has guests in Anaklia, except perhaps one or two in the center”.
There are three large hotels in Anaklia and several family hotels. The price per night starts at 30 GEL [about $ 9.6] and goes up to 200 GEL [about $ 64] depending on services and conditions.
Due to the pandemic last year, there were almost no foreign tourists in Anaklia. Large hotels were transferred to quarantine facilities. Last year, local hotels survived thanks to domestic tourism, but they will not be able to live in this mode for a long time.
“The pandemic changed our lives, cutting our income in half, but we’re still going to reopen this year”, says Eka Gvilia, who has been running an open-air café on the boulevard for nine years.
She says she was going to open in a week, but she is unlikely to be able to: “The local municipality won’t let us, they set some new rules, ask for rent, but have not yet determined the price. And we won’t be able to open until we know the prices”.
The Zugdidi mayor’s office told us that the lease price cannot yet be named – they are awaiting the results of the audit of the property.
As time goes by, Eka hopes that domestic tourists will come and does not believe that any foreigners will come this season.
The future of both Eka and Nana depends on the sum that the local authorities charge for the use of the boulevard.
In addition, the city hall demanded from Eka an architectural drawing of an open cafe, which will work for a total of three months. According to her, the architect, to whom she turned for this, refused her, because he did not understand why a drawing of tables and umbrellas displayed on the street was needed.
She also has to supply electricity and water to the cafe at her own expense.
Port of Anaklia – frozen project
Tourism is not the only way for Anaklia to develop. Moreover, many in Georgia believe that thanks to investments, Anaklia could not change the life of only this small village or region, but the entire country with the construction of the first deep-water port in Georgia.
The mouth of the Inguri River, where Anaklia is located, was considered a convenient place for navigation in past eras. The idea to build a port in this small village appeared several times in Soviet Georgia.
The idea of building a city and a port was put forward by the past authorities of Georgia. The Georgian Dream government and personally the leader of the party Ivanishvili have repeatedly expressed skepticism about this project.
However, in 2014, the government still announced an international tender for the construction of a deep-sea port in Anaklia. The tender was won by the Anaklia Development Consortium, which consisted of the Georgian company TBC Holding, the American SSA Marine, British Wondernet Expres operating in Central Asia, and the Bulgarian G-Star Ltd. The project was supposed to have $ 400 million in investments.
Georgia currently has two ports on the Black Sea – in Poti and Batumi. However, due to insufficient depth, not all types of vessels may enter these ports. Therefore, these ports cannot compete with either Turkish or Russian Black Sea ports.
If a port ends up being built in Anaklia, the situation will change dramatically. According to the project, the port will be able to accept ships with a capacity of up to 10,000 containers – for comparison, the country’s main port, Poti, can accept ships with a capacity of only 1,500 containers. The port Anaklia will significantly increase the transit potential of Georgia, as it will open the way for the transit of goods between Central Asia and Europe.
An investment agreement was signed and construction began in 2017. But just a year later, when the underwater work had already been completed, disagreements began between the state and the consortium, and construction was suspended.
The main reason for the controversy was the government’s refusal to provide investors with state financial guarantees in case the port fails to reach full capacity on schedule. The government accused the consortium of failing to find the necessary funds.
In addition, an investigation was launched against the leaders of the consortium – influential bankers Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze – on charges of money laundering due to a 10-year-old transaction.
The Georgian opposition has repeatedly stated that the authorities are deliberately sabotaging the construction under pressure from Russia, which is not satisfied with the new port in Georgia.
Dissatisfaction with the obstacles posed to the project has been expressed more than once by the US State Department.
In January 2021, the Georgian government announced the final termination of the deal with the consortium and the suspension of the project. In March, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili ordered to prepare a new tender and find new investors.
Today, no one can even name an approximate date of when the port Anaklia may be completed.
“When the port was being built, many people were employed, they had income. Some rented out houses for workers, some cooked food for them, worked as cleaners. Everyone was happy”, local resident Tamar Shelia recalls.
Whoever we talk to in Anaklia seems to associates their future prosperity with the construction of the port.
According to the study of the potential of the Anaklia Special Economic Zone, which was carried out by the Anaklia Development Consortium, the implementation of the project will create 16,000 jobs over 20 years and attract more than one billion dollars in investment.
But so far, the frozen construction is only a disaster for local residents. On the site of the future port, on an area of 110 hectares, five million cubic meters of sand were filled in. The area of the port, where work is currently suspended, borders on the village. When the wind blows, everything turns gray in Anaklia, and the houses and yards of local residents are covered with sand.
“This is no ordinary sand. This is sand dust. It penetrates through all the cracks. You cannot breathe. You poison yourself”, says Tamar Shelia, whose house is only separated from the construction site by a fence.
The Shelia family has already washed their three-story wooden house with Karcher several times. The sand was washed away, but the wooden walls absorbed water and everything in the house deteriorated. To hide the dark patina, the walls were painted with golden lacquer. But whenever the wind blows, Shelia’s beautiful three-story wooden house turns black again and hell starts all over for her.
“We built a house on the generic site, we didn’t want to go anywhere. We had no idea what was in store for us. Now I dream of being resettled”, says Tamar.
These unbearable sandstorms harm not only the health of residents but also tourism in the area in general.
“Now, if tourists come to us and such a wind blows again, everyone will scatter. My brother-in-law lives next to me. A Russian family with children came to him. They arrived in the morning and two hours later the wind blew. They were shocked, they asked how we live here and how we breathe. They called a taxi and left”, says Tamar Shelia.
The site of Nugzar Gabelia also borders the port under construction. He says that the sandy winds cover not only his house, but the entire Anaklia: “This sand is like flour. If it finds the smallest gap, and fills up the whole house”.
Nugzar explains that to solve the problem, it is enough to return fertile soil to the area, and after several rains there will be no more sandstorms.
“There is also the problem of protecting the coast from destruction. It is also easy to solve it. It is necessary to make small breakwaters, the river will add more sand, and the sea will naturally recede … But as in the case of sand, unfortunately, they do not ask us”.
You can fish but you also cannot
“Man has always tried to live by the water in order to benefit from it. But in the 21st century this turns out to be not a benefit, but a problem”, Nugzar Gabelia notes with regret.
Nugzar is a fisherman, for many years this business was both a hobby and a source of income for him:
“As far as I remember, fishing in Anaklia has never been limited. There is a spawning period when you are not fishing, the rest of the time you can always make money. And now you may be fined so much that you will have to sell your house”.
For about 10% of Anaklia’s residents, fishing is the only source of income. The fishermen of Anaklia are now in a very difficult situation. They need a license to fish freely and in order to get it, one needs an equipped fishing vessel, as well as a visit to Batumi and payment of several thousand lari.
The fishermen of Anaklia fish on small motorboats with fishing nets in a small closed area:
“We were given one and a half kilometers in the territory of Anaklia. How many people can fit in there ?! When the season comes, 30-40 ships come from Turkey … There is a nature reserve, there is a restricted area, so where to fish? “
Turkish vessels have licenses, and it is unthinkable for the fishermen of Anaklia to compete with them.
Transparency International Georgia, in a 2015-2016 publication on the plight of Anaklia’s fishermen, notes that the state should review the fishing license conditions, as it is almost impossible for local residents to compete with licensee companies.
Is there a hope ahead?
However, even with such a large number of problems, local residents do not lose their optimism.
“Anaklia has great potential, with a normal owner, everyone can be happy here”, says Data Shelia, a majoritarian MP from Anaklia in the municipal sakrebulo, the local council of Zugdidi. He represents the United National Movement, the party of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Since 2014, the Zugdidi municipality, like all municipalities in Georgia, has been headed by representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Sympathy for the former government among the residents of Anaklia is clearly visible – most likely because it was under the UNM that a large reconstruction began here, which practically stopped under the current government.
“There is a wonderful coast, a sandy beach, tranquility, a park. Have you ever seen an advertisement for Anaklia ?!”, asks Date. We remember that all the way from Tbilisi to Anaklia we did not see a single advertising sign anywhere.
“If it is possible to advertise casinos in Tbilisi, in the metro, on trains, why can’t there be, for example, Anaklia’s advertisements and informational booklets on the Tbilisi-Zugdidi train ?!”, the deputy’s voice is noticeably agitated.
Date Shelia believes that in the already “promoted” tourist centers, where there is a large influx of tourists during the season, there should be large information banners, where there would be information about Anaklia and what tourists may find here.
Another possibility is festivals. In 2014, the Kazantip festival was held in Anaklia, after being relocated from Russia-annexed Crimea.
“There were so many people that there were no places. Everything was booked within a radius of 30 kilometers from Anaklia”, recalls Tamar Shelia.
Kazantip was only the first of many, later Gem Fest and Echo Waves were held in Anaklia. The latter is expected with great hope this year as well. Date Shelia believes that such a festival will revive Anaklia after a two-year hiatus.
Others think so too.
“They say it should be held in the last week of August. Such a festival should attract people here, otherwise, there is no infrastructure, no entertainment, vacationers will not come here, they will go to Batumi”, says Eka Gvilia.
What is the state doing?
What is the state going to do to promote Anaklia? We asked this question to the Georgian Tourism Administration, which referred us to Samegrelo Destination Management Organization (DMO). This is a new model of tourism management based on international recommendations with financial support from USAID. Its goal is to popularize the regions and promote tourism.
Several events are planned this year to promote Samegrelo and Anaklia, Levan Tsulaya, Director of Samegrelo DMO, told us:
“In the coming days, a section of the Churia of the Colchis National Park will open near Anaklia, where a rope park was built with the help of USAID and we bought a ferry for tourist walks. It is also planned to open a “Fisherman’s House” … In addition, every year we conduct information tours, which is a good way to popularize the tourism potential of Samegrelo”.
In addition, graphic videos about Samegrelo are already ready in two languages (Georgian and English), which will be posted on both Georgian and foreign online platforms such as Tripadvisor (one of the two videos is dedicated to the tourism potential of Samegrelo in general, and the other – Anaklia as a suitable location for youth festivals).
JAMnews tried to find out in the administration of the Samegrelo region what the state is doing to promote Anaklia and how it sees the potential of this area in general but they refused to comment on the matter.
In response to our inquiry about what is planned for the development of the Anaklia resort, the Zugdidi mayor’s office replied that this year it is planned to repair one of the local roads and street lighting, as well as to build a sports ground.
“Four years ago, a Russian family visited me. I set the table at the expense of the house. I had wine, cheese, it cost us nothing to bake khachapuri. The woman went out into the street, began to call her people: they say, what our president says is not true, we are in heaven!”, – says Nugzar Gabelia.
Despite everything, he does not lose optimism and that the day will surely come believes when a better life will begin in Anaklia.
Supported by RLNE