A glimpse at the lives of local residents and the importance of Russian tourists
Sukhum/i, the capital of Abkhazia, wakes up rather slow in the summertime.
It wasn’t very early in the morning, but on the streets there were only workers sitting under a tree. They didn’t look like local residents.
One man appeared, and crossed the empty street and headed for the bakery.
Near the market in the old part of town, there were more early birds.
“Why is this building so interesting to you”, one elderly man asked as he sat smoking outside of a bar which was curiously open. He had suspicion in his eyes.
On the old boardwalk, built by German POWs after World War Two, there are many more merchants than there are buyers.
Sukhum/i was one of the most popular tourism destinations for tourists in the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Georgian - Abkhaz war in the beginning of the 1990s, the region experienced economic collapse. Now Sukhum/i hardly reminds one of a place which was once considered ‘a jewel in the Soviet crown.’
Abkhazia, however, started to be quite popular amongst Russian tourists after 2014. The annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the subsequent war in the Donbass worsened relations with the west and redirected more Russian tourists to Abkhazia and Crimea.
An attractive point for Russian tourists is the fact that they don’t need neither visas or even international passports in order to come to Abkhazia.
The fact that the trip from Sochi to Sukhum/i takes just five hours by train is another plus for Russian tourists.
About 1.6 million tourists came to Abkhazia from Russia in 2017 – one decade ago, this number stood at 92,000. But despite the immense surge in tourism, Abkhaz beaches remain relatively empty in comparison to Georgian resort towns at the height of the season.
“Tourists generally come from Russia for one or two days, and they generally come to see all of the attractions at once”, a local guide, Yaroslav, said, adding that Sukhum/i streets and beaches don’t have many tourists.
In addition to the old boardwalk, the building of the former Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia is also worth one’s attention. It was damaged during the Georgian-Abkhaz war in 1992-1993. The ruins still stand in the centre of town, though recently an enormous banner in honour of Abkhazia’s 25 years of independence, dated from the beginning of the military conflict in 1992, was hung here.
Current president of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba (who is running for a second term in office) in 2017 promised to reconstruct the building. “It’s a question of finances”, he explained in 2019, commenting on the fact the building is still in ruins.
Abkhazia’s annual budget is 165 million USD. About 45 per cent of this sum is Russian subsidies. Income from tourism is very important for Abkhazia – it makes up about eight per cent of its annual income.
“We love Russians. They give us money”, Yaroslav said, laughing. But he added in a serious tone: “Without Russia, we wouldn’t have a single tourist. We really do need them.”
The tourism industry in Abkhazia likely received an additional push in 2019 – Russian President Putin banned flights to Georgia after protests began in Tbilisi under the motto ‘Russia is an occupier.’ Many Russian tourists cancelled their trips to Georgia, and many in Abkhazia hoped they would come to Abkhaz beaches instead.
“We’re ready to take in all the Russian tourists that planned to go to Georgia and were forced to cancel their trips”, said the Deputy Minister of Tourism Astamur Bartsits after the ban came into force.
But not everyone is concerned about the problem of Russian tourists and politics. We spent part of the day with local domino players on the boardwalk – they were more interested in sports and beer.
Sukhum/i becomes more animated in the evening. Both tourists and locals come out to the beaches to stroll along the boardwalk. Fishermen also come out. Dozens of sports fans gathered to watch a football match between Sukhum/i and Gudauta.
It was already dark, but young people were working out in the park by the sea. Another group was playing basketball.
In the restaurant Abaza, children danced local numbers – girls and boys strictly separated.
And Sukhumi’s sunset is always magical.