Batumi: From black hole to Black Sea paradise

Ten years ago, it was a miserable backwater in Georgia with little going for it. Today, it is a busy resort town attracting hordes of tourists

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The Independent Online

It is one in the morning at the Peace Casino, and amid a fog of cigarette smoke, a Turkish businessman is laying $50 bets on the blackjack table, laughing with his Armenian neighbour and flirting with the Ukrainian croupier. Across the room, young Iranians shovel coins into a bank of slot machines relentlessly. Outside on the coastal esplanade, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, two nations still at war and whose citizens are banned from entering each others' countries, mingle freely in the languid night air, and sip cocktails at beachside bars.

This is the Georgian resort town of Batumi, a city that a decade ago was a miserable backwater with little going for it, run as a semi-autonomous statelet by a mafia-linked warlord. Under the regime of reforming President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003, the city has been transformed beyond recognition. The previous leader was ousted and fled to Moscow, and the construction cranes have multiplied each year. Mr Saakashvili has said he wants the sub-tropical Batumi to function as Beirut did in the 1970s, as the party town for the whole Caucasus and wider Middle East region.

"It really has been a miracle," says Levan Varshalomidze, the Governor of Adjara, the wider region that includes Batumi, and the numbers are indeed impressive. In 2004, just 75,000 tourists visited Batumi, according to figures provided by the local government, but dramatic a year-on-year increase has culminated in 1.3 million visiting last year, with 1.6 million expected this year.

For now, with flights to the city expensive and not that numerous, most visitors come by car from other parts of Georgia and neighbouring Armenia – the country is landlocked and so Batumi is one of the few options for Armenians keen on a beach holiday. But the wider region is already starting to take notice. With gambling banned in Turkey, Iran and Russia, there is a huge market for casinos. So far this year there have been 200,000 visitors from Turkey, 50,000 from Iran and 20,000 from Israel. "This is the only city where you have Iranians flirting with Israelis, and Armenians dancing with Azeris," says an adviser to Mr Saakashvili. "We want to make it a real city of peace."

"For any city trying to be a tourist destination, it's normal to have this level of progress in 15 to 20 years," says Omer Subasi, the Turkish general manager of the Sheraton Batumi, who sits in an office with portraits of Mr Saakashvili and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on the wall. "Here it has happened in four years. I find it incredible, and it's all thanks to the government's progressive policies. What they have done here in a few years, the Turks haven't been able to do in 30 years."

When the Sheraton opened three years ago, says Mr Subasi, there were concerns that it would never fill up. But business is booming, and half a dozen other major hotel brands are due to open their doors in the near future. "I have never seen a city this small attract so many international brands," he says. "This will be the Monaco of the Black Sea within four years," he says.

The plan is to restore the glory that Batumi basked in over a century ago to the city. "This used to be one of the great European resort cities, but the Soviets ruined that," says Mr Varshalomidze. The town first came to prominence in the 1880s, as oil was discovered in the Caspian Sea, nearly 500 miles away. The oil came from Baku overland to Batumi, where it was loaded onto tankers and transported to the rest of the world. The Nobels and the Rothschilds built villas in Batumi, there were consulates of 27 countries in the city, as five-star hotels sprang up along the waterfront to cater for a high class of visitor. The Bolshevik Revolution changed all that, as the town became an isolated backwater, all but off-limits to non-Soviet tourists.

One of Batumi's most recent fans is Donald Trump, the American businessman, who visited earlier this year and is building one of his Trump Tower complexes in the city. On one of the roads out of town, a huge banner depicts Mr Trump with Mr Saakashvili, and a quote from the American: "In five years, Batumi will be the best city in the world."

The roads have been paved with cobblestones, neat rows of palm trees planted throughout the town centre, and a central piazza of pleasant cafés and bars created where previously there were scruffy semi-derelict buildings. The local equivalent of Boris bikes, on hire for 80p per hour, are available for cycling along the five miles of beach promenade that has been landscaped by Spanish architects and lined with palm trees.

Omer Ilknur, a Turkish construction manager who worked on projects in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan before coming to Batumi four years ago, fell in love with the city so much that he took Georgian citizenship and has moved permanently. He is now overseeing the construction of a 42-storey complex that will be known as Babylon Towers. "At the start it was hard to convince people to come here," he says. "But it has been like a snowball effect – first the Sheraton, then other international brands, and now suddenly everybody wants to be in Batumi."

Of course, Donald Trump's taste in architecture may not be everyone's idea of aesthetic beauty, and many of the city's new buildings verge on the kitsch, but in comparison with Sochi on the Russian Black Sea coast, which will host the Winter Olympics, the results are impressive, as even the country's political opposition grudgingly concedes. Nevertheless, there are concerns. Irakli Chavleishvili, an archaeologist who is one of the few members of the city council who is not from Mr Saakashvili's party, says that however impressive the level of construction is, the government should take a more collegiate approach to development. "There hasn't been a chief architect or planner in the city for over a year, because the only planner that matters is Misha Saakashvili," he says. "Nothing gets built without his express approval. I sit on the city council, and we never get a say in anything. Maybe we do need a giant illuminated tower in the centre of the city. But it would just be nice if people were given the chance to discuss it."

Even more worrying for critics of Mr Saakashvili is a scheme to build a brand new city of 500,000 people called Lazika from scratch further up the coast from Batumi. With Mr Saakashvili's presidential term due to finish next year, most people doubt that Lazika, described by one opposition politician as the "fantasy of a madman" will get off the ground. Batumi, however, has already become a new city, and the governor, Mr Varshalomidze says that whoever the next president of Georgia is, Batumi will continue to flourish.

"Five years ago it looked completely different to how it does today, and in another five years it will look completely different again," he says. "This will be the new Singapore, the new Barcelona, the new Antalya, the new everything! But it will also stay being Batumi at the same time."

A place in the sun? Far-flung resorts

Sochi A city of concrete sanatoria that in recent years has experienced a construction boom after it was announced the nearby mountains would host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Development has been fast, but the quality of some buildings is questionable, and there have been complaints about the corruption involved in many of the construction bids.

Avaza Turkmenistan has a reputation as one of the world's most dictatorial states and the former leader Turkmenbashi liked to build statues of himself. His successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been busy building Avaza, a resort on the Black Sea coast. Isolation, cold waters, sea snakes, and an illiberal visa regimes make it an unlikely tourist mecca. The government has put up hundreds of millions of pounds, but the hotels largely remain empty.

Issyk-Kul In the heart of central Asia, Lake Issyk-Kul provides beach holidays about as far from the sea as it is possible to get. The resort town in Kyrgyzstan was a favourite of holidaymakers from the central Asian republics. It has fallen into disarray since the Soviet collapse but locals still enjoy the deep, clear waters.