How events in Russia affect the tourism business in Abkhazia, why guests and hosts are unhappy
“Last year at this time in June there were many more people,” say all the workers in the tourism sector of Abkhazia.
At the same time, official data indicate the opposite: the flow of tourists crossing the Psou checkpoint on the Abkhaz-Russian border increased by about 15% compared to 2022.
One way or another, although the season has just begun, the tourism business in Abkhazia is already feeling all the consequences of current political events, from anti-Russian sanctions to the failed "mutiny" of the Wagner PMC.
Which is not surprising, given that the vast majority of foreign tourists in Abkhazia are Russian.
Tourists have become thriftier
The Ritsa Relic Reserve is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Abkhazia. Inal has been working here for 10 years photographing tourists with peacocks. He also says that there are fewer people this year. And the demographics of tourist groups, according to him, has also changed.
“There are noticeably more women coming. Women and children, mostly.”
He adds that vacationers have become even more economical —- whereas in the past they bought wine and souvenirs, they now limit themselves to the entrance ticket.
Maya Leiba, the owner of a cafe near a mineral water source at the reserve, agrees with this.
“They come, collect water and leave.”
A clear proof of her words is the line gathered at the source with plastic bottles in their hands. A cafe is empty but for one family.
Earnings at local cafes in June 2023 are noticeably lower than last year.
David from Gala
There are usually tour buses in front of large restaurants on Lake Ritsa and a lot of people in front of the tasting rooms.
But there are also small restaurants that are not so popular. We go into one of them called Amza — a small house among boxwood trees. Not a soul inside.
David Pirtskheliani is both waiter and assistant director. He says that in the morning he sat 20 people for breakfast: “We have free breakfasts here with tea and buns. Travel agencies pay the tab. There will also be 40 people for lunch.”
David says that the owner of the restaurant has no luck with the staff. But it looks like luck isn't the problem here.
For several years in a row, staff was recruited only for the season, and this is a big mistake. The reputation of the restaurant depends on the conscientiousness of the employees, but if the employees themselves are not interested, then they will not try too hard.
You can pay for lunch here not only in cash, but by transferring money to David's bank card. This is how other local cafes in the Ritsa Gorge work. This is an innovation, it was not the case last year.
Cold water and a hole in the floor for a toilet
Hungry tourists line up at street washstands. Traditionally for Abkhazia, there are no toilet rooms inside the restaurant. The faucets outside are the only place where you can wash your hands.
It looks as if all the walls in the public restroom have been demolished, except for the one from which the taps stick out. Some owners are trying to decorate these taps. The wall is lined with river stone or even Italian tile.
But there is only cold water, a soap dish with damp soap, and no paper towels. Often there is an old towel, which few dare to use.
Locals still say that there has been progress with hygiene. Previously there were no toilets here at all; tourists were looking for places behind bushes and trees to relieve themselves. This season, most restaurants have concrete buildings.
But visitors to the reserve do not feel much more comfortable in these toilets. It's just a hole in the concrete floor.
There is no sewer system in the gorge at all, and this is why there are no normal sanitary facilities. But it is also associated with a traditional neglect of toilets. Practically nowhere in Abkhazia can you find a decent latrine.
"The authorities have focused on the development of infrastructure and at least on environmental protection from tourists. There should be an environmental police in Abkhazia, but so far this is a serious burden on the budget. So locals should show by their example how to treat the nature of Abkhazia," president of the Abkhaz Tourism Union Anna Kalyagina say.
Mass construction of permanent buildings in the reserve is visible to the naked eye, although it is prohibited by law.
грThreats to nature in the Ritsa Reserve have already been more or less eliminated.
It is much cleaner on the lake and in the surrounding gorge. The reserve itself is engaged in cleaning, garbage is taken out every day in the summer season, and autonomous cleaning systems have been installed in restaurants.
Butterflies, which have been destroying boxwood since 2015, have also been brought under control.
More extreme entertainment appeared in the Ritsa Gorge this year. Tarzanks, swings and rafting on the Bzyb River are the main attractions.
It is difficult to say how safe tourists are; no one has done an official investigation.
АAuadkhara is another popular place in the Ritsa Gorge. Tourists are brought to the Alpine meadows on UAZs. Here the main entertainments are horseback riding and photography against the backdrop of mountains. Many people go hiking to Adjara waterfalls and Lake Mzy.
In the Ritsa Reserve, the collecting of herbs is prohibited. Picking flowers is not allowed, but they still wind up among tourists’ souvenirs.
The most commonly harvested are black tulips. They are saved, apparently, only by the fact that they grow at a sufficiently high altitude and not everyone can reach them.
BLACK TULIPS GROW IN ALPINE MEADOWS IN ABKHAZIA, THEY ARE INCLUDED IN THE "RED BOOK" OF PROTECTED SPECIES
Auadhara is famous not only for its rare mountain beauty, but also for its dairy products —cheese, matsoni. But now you can't find them in any store. Dairy cows have practically ceased to be raised in the mountains. One reason is that there are too many cars and people in the valley.
We used to bring milk cows to the mountains, and we made cheese, and akhartsva (matsoni). But now it has become problematic. We have a business in Pitsunda, there are customers, everything is already set up there, and this year we left the cows there. You can’t just keep a large herd here, there are too many people. Many tourists don’t like that cows are walking around, they have cars. This is the situation, says Nikolai, who works as a shepherd at a local farm.
One after another, UAZs with tourists who want to admire the mountains and alpine meadows in the so-called "student clearing" drive along the pitted one-lane road to the mountain village of Audhara. Freely grazing cows against the backdrop of an amphitheater of mountain peaks is a very beautiful picture.
Basically, "one-day" tourists come here to look and go back. But there are also campers with special guides.
One guide is Samvel Samuelyan.
Samvel says that the beginning of this season can be called a failure: “We didn’t manage to work at all during the May holidays. People simply didn’t come. And in the first half of June it was also completely empty.”
The most profitable season for Samvel was summer 2021:
It was the pandemic, and all directions were closed except for us. Very rich people came. It was the first time I saw such people. They did not save and understood that services and time cost money. And now tourists do not want to spend too much and are trying to squeeze the maximum out of the money spent.
In winter there are also tourists, the season for kayakers who like to raft down the river in a kayak:
In Russia most of the rivers freeze in winter, so they come to us, because our rivers are suitable for rafting at any time of the year.
The Ministry of Tourism is currently fighting illegal guides. According to the law on tourism, only a citizen of Abkhazia who has completed courses and received a certificate can work as a guide.”
Tourism for locals
But most who go to Audhara stay for a few days in a boarding house. This is a fairly large fenced area, which houses eight two-story houses for five people and a five-story building. The head of the boarding house Radmir Ahiba says that 85% of vacationers here are residents of Abkhazia.
We open the booking quite late, on May 1, so that the locals have time to book their rooms. Because Russian tourists plan their holidays well in advance, while Abkhazians cannot afford it. And if we had opened the booking before May, then, most likely, the Russians would have taken everything, and there would have been no more for our places. And we don't want that.
Beauty in the Ritsa Reserve is not entirely wild. Two years ago, a mini hydroelectric power station was installed in the Audhara boarding house, which supplies electricity to wooden houses. But for now, the station provides them only with lighting.
Gas was installed by Nikolay Loktev:
"We intend to install more USB devices for charging phones. The volume of water and the height difference here are not so big to install a more powerful station. And it's not needed here," he says.
“They tell how they traveled around Europe, and how bad it is here”
Among foreign tourists in the Ritsensky Reserve, couples with children predominate, but there are also many athletes.
“There are good tracks for training here. And nature is extraordinary. But the service is still bad,” says cyclist Alexei Ivanov.
Residents of Abkhazia who have long been engaged in accommodating tourists in the private sector note that they have become much more demanding.
“This year, none of those who came in previous years came to us, although we have a lot of regular customers. But the situation in Russia has worsened, and many have written to us that this summer they have no opportunity. But others arrived, very fastidious. They tell how they traveled around Europe, and how bad it is here. Well, let's move on. It seems that not all countries are closed to them now,” says Nadezhda Chamagua, the owner of one of the guest houses.
The "new" tourists are dissatisfied with the devastation in many places in Abkhazia, with the fact that electricity is cut off periodically, the roads are not very smooth, the beaches are rocky, there are no large supermarkets and few restaurants.
“Some do not quite understand where they are. Our regular customers come to take a break from running around and their usual way of life, and these others want to bring all the fuss with them,” Nadezhda says.
President of the Abkhaz Tourism Union Anna Kalyagina says that a number of important decisions in the field of tourism were made this year, and highlights two:
A law has been passed prohibiting walking in swimsuits and swimming trunks outside the beach. A system of constant monitoring of sea water for the presence of viruses and dangerous bacteria has been started.
In her opinion, the summer season of 2023 is still going on in the usual dynamics. The extent of booking is not great, and Russian tourists try not to make long-term plans.
The hostess of another guest house, Inna Kvitsinia,says the same:
Almost all of my rooms were booked. But as soon as the Wagner PMC mutiny happened in Russia, several families canceled their bookings because their husbands were called back from vacations. And the wives began to demand the return of the advance payment. Now I follow the news in order to understand if anyone is coming.
AUTHOR OF TEXT, VIDEO AND PHOTO: MARIANNA KOTOVA, ABKHAZIA
Terms, place names, opinions and ideas suggested by the author of the publication are her / his own and do not necessarily coincide with the opinions and ideas of JAMnews or its individual employees. JAMnews reserves the right to remove comments on posts that are deemed offensive, threatening, violent or otherwise ethically unacceptable.