Hoteliers on Georgia’s Black Sea Coast hope huge discounts can revive Batumi's decimated tourism industry.
It’s safe to say there is something for every traveler’s budget in Batumi, the shiny city on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Along the most premium stretch of pebbled shoreline, beachfront apartments are available for $12 a night. If that’s too pricey, backpackers can walk inland a few hundred meters and score a hostel bed for just $2.
Yet the tourists are barely coming.
Batumi had been enjoying a stratospheric rise as a holiday destination for low- and medium-budget travelers, mostly from Russia. But a one-two punch has knocked tourism cold.
First, a diplomatic spat with Russia in the summer of 2019 led to the Kremlin imposing a flight ban between the two countries. Then, in early 2020, Georgia’s borders were sealed in an attempt to snuff out the coronavirus.
Mary Emiridze of the Ajara Tourism Department, which oversees Batumi, says the region welcomed more than 1.6 million tourists in 2019. In 2020, just 306,000 arrived -- a drop of some 81 percent.
Emiridze says she has “never seen anything like” the lowering of prices for the accommodations that exist in Batumi. Many guesthouse owners are advertising rooms for a fraction of what they once cost as they vie for the attention of tourists.
A guesthouse owner who asked to go by his anglicized name, Archie, is renting out apartments in Batumi’s old town for around one-third of his 2019 price. He estimates tourist numbers are down 90 percent from what they would usually be at this time of the year. The Batumi local says he hasn’t been “this hard up” since the 1990s, when Georgia was wracked by a civil war and economic turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Archie says some Batumi locals had to rely on family links to the untamed highlands that loom above the city to survive the past year: “A lot of people have relatives that live up in the mountains who own cows and sheep. In the mountains, they always have food. They don’t need the government. They can live by themselves.”
Georgia is currently allowing flights from Turkey, Israel, and Ukraine, but if visitors are not vaccinated they need a fresh, negative COVID test to board their plane. On their third day in Georgia, they need to take a second COVID test. Children and babies are also required to undergo the uncomfortable nasal swab necessary to be tested, though some officials are ignoring this requirement.
Georgia remains under a curfew, meaning restaurants are closed by 8 p.m. and anyone on the street after 9 p.m. risks receiving a large fine. Food-delivery services are operating throughout the country.
Israelis are among the most numerous tourists in Batumi these days, but Archie says the money those tourists are spending is mostly being circulated in the multinational chain hotels with adjoining casinos and high-end restaurants that line Batumi’s waterfront. Most forms of gambling are illegal in Israel and there are no public casinos. A receptionist at Batumi’s Hilton, which has a casino on its second floor, told RFE/RL the hotel was fully booked for much of April, though even that hotel had dropped its prices by some 25 percent compared to 2019.
The effects of Batumi’s shrunken tourist economy can also be felt away from the city’s waterfront.
In the Batumi Bazaar, Malkhaz sells crisp bushels of herbs, lettuce, and spring onions. The Batumi native says that before the summer of 2019 a large part of his business were the budget-conscious, long-term vacationers who ventured to the bustling market for their weekly grocery runs. The vegetable seller says he used to load around half a ton of vegetables from local growers into his truck every morning, but says he now barely has use for the truck and instead packs a few dozen kilos of produce into his car to take to the market.
In Batumi’s sleepy old town, as he awaits the reservations that will signal a return of the city’s tourists, Archie uses an ancient Georgian saying that seems more relevant today than ever: “We are ready for guests, and guests are from God.”