International Herald Tribune, France
May 30 2006

Faded Black Sea port putting on a fresh face
By Andrew E. Kramer The New York Times

TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2006


BATUMI, Georgia Welcome to Georgia's new beach town.

Two years after this city was wrested from a separatist leader in one
of the former Soviet Union's obscure little conflicts, Batumi is on a
crash development program as a resort.

The 19th-century port built by French architects is a place where the
palm and grapevine covered foothills of the Caucasus Mountains
cascade onto gray pebble beaches, where stately hotels like the
London are getting a fresh coat of paint, and where the coffee is
served in the Turkish style, mixed with grounds.

But try getting a room in one of the beachfront hotels, and you will
learn there has not been a vacancy here since 1993: the hotels are
occupied by refugees, who, with no home to return to, checked in and
never left.

In its second beach season since central authority was restored,
Batumi is still ironing out some kinks. Since the breakup of the
Soviet Union, the leader of the Adjaria region, Aslan Abashidza, shut
Batumi from the world and used the port for smuggling guns and
alcohol, frightening away tourists, until he was ousted on May 5,
2004, by Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia who assumed
power in 2003, vowing to rein in the country's three separatist
conflicts - two in former beach resorts.

The refugees come from a different and still unresolved conflict in
Abkhazia, also on the Black Sea coast - and therein lies the secret
of the money pouring into Batumi's mini-tourism boom. Georgian
officials are hoping this town will become a shining example of
development and international investment that comes when a separatist
region becomes part of a recognized state.

The city, they say, is becoming a showcase of how quickly one of the
so- called "frozen conflicts" of the former Soviet Union -
Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia
and Transnistria in Moldova - can thaw out.

"We should communicate to them that they have a future," Saakashvili
said of residents of nearby Abkhazia, in an interview. "It will take
two or three years, but they will notice. When we have yachts in the
harbor, they will see."

Like Beirut on the Mediterranean Sea, another cosmopolitan seafront
town that dropped off the map because of war, Batumi on the Black Sea
is now shaking out of its stupor and hanging out a welcome sign.

Adjaria is ethnically Georgian though distinct from the rest of the
country for a minority Muslim population, but still, most experts
say, harbored no deep-seated ethnic tension. Georgia's other two
separatist enclaves are far thornier social, ethnic and political
challenges.

Still, Levan Varshalomidze, the 34- year-old new governor of Adjaria,
is hopeful the tourists trickling back to the eastern Black Sea will
soften his separatist neighbors.

"When people make money they find a common language," he said.

The transformation is fast.

French consultants suggested the Goni Russian tank base, being
vacated, be converted to a golf course. On a bluff over the Black
Sea, it recalls the rolling green fairways overlooking the Pacific at
Pebble Beach in California. Two years after Abashidza fled to Moscow,
Novotel, the French hotel chain, has signed a contract to open a
hotel.

Under Abashidza, 14 kilometers, or about 10 miles, or roads were
paved. In the past two years the new government laid down 120
kilometers of fresh asphalt.

In one of his last acts as strongman, Abashidze mined a bridge
leading into town. An amusement park that is being dubbed Georgia's
Disneyland is going up near the spot this summer.

In the largest investment to date, the TuranAlem bank of Kazakhstan
bought 21 hotels, which also came with the refugees. As part of the
investment, the bank will pay each refugee family $7,000 to move out,
enough for a modest apartment in an outlying district.

The deal is seen as an important and positive sign that money from
oil-rich former Soviet states is being invested in their poorer
neighbors.

When the refugees are gone, the Kazakh investors will raze and
rebuild some hotels and refurbish others. The hotels are now home to
1,912 families, or about 6,000 people.

At present, the Meskheti hotel is more fire-trap than tourist
attraction. A large puddle has formed in the lobby from a dripping
ceiling. Scruffy men in track suits lounge in the shade drawing on
cheap cigarettes. Marina Gahukidze, 42, has lived in a 10th floor
single room with a view of the beach since 1993. She and her husband
raised three children in the room. On a recent visit, two boys were
unloading backpacks and settling into homework.

"We didn't expect to live here so long," she says of the only home
her children have known.

About 15 kilometers south of town is a Byzantine castle with a
crenellated wall, now guarding a courtyard of citrus trees, also
making a debut to the modern world as a tourist attraction; it was in
a closed border zone and off limits in Soviet times. The detritus of
stone Roman waterworks are scattered beside a magnolia; the smell of
mandarin trees in bloom waft over the old rocks.

The now abandoned castle is emblematic of the potential of tourism in
Georgia, where the landscape resembles northern California.

"It will be a key part of economic growth," Irakli Chogovadze, the
minister of economy of Georgia, said in an interview, while attending
the ribbon cutting at the Intourist Palace hotel in Batumi on May 24.
"Wherever you put your finger on the Georgian map, you have
potential."

Beside a bubbling fountain in the hotel foyer, waitresses in pressed
white shirts weaved through a crowd of diplomats with trays of
Champagne flutes and caviar canapés.

The Georgian economy grew 9 percent last year, with foreign visits up
14 percent. Most of the visitors are coming from the former Soviet
Union, Turkey and Iran. The Iranians began slipping over last summer
for a few days of freedom, including booze and girl watching.