Batumi: the Las Vegas of the Black Sea
Georgia’s beautiful, subtropical Black Sea coast is once again drawing tourists from far and wide, and the government hopes focusing on gambling will help pull in visitors all year round.
When you are in Batumi, it is hard to believe that this was once a corrupt and crime-ridden city, cut off from the rest of the country, and run as a personal fiefdom by a power-hungry strongman.
Today the palm trees are illuminated in neon. Fountains are bathed in red and green spotlights, and hotels flash like Christmas tree lights.
Subtlety is not something you see much of in these parts. But then this once dark and impoverished corner of the former Soviet Union is now being touted as the Las Vegas of the Black Sea.
Just as Las Vegas likes to build larger-than-life imitations of Paris or Rome, in a confusingly circular way, Batumi is attempting its own rather bizarre copy of Las Vegas.
More aspirational members of the Georgian government would prefer to draw comparisons with Monte Carlo – but all the flashing lights and slot machines make me think more of 1980s Blackpool, near where I grew up in rainy north-west England. Minus, of course, the sticks of rock and the donkeys.
Turkish flags wave proudly outside the new casinos, whose owners say up to 70% of all the tourists in Batumi come to gamble – and that at the weekends, more than half of the guests at the roulette wheels or blackjack tables are Turkish.
Over the centuries this region was repeatedly invaded by Turks. Now Georgia is doing everything it can to lure them back. Passport controls crossing from Turkey into Georgia have been eased, meaning Turkish tourists can cross for an evening’s flutter showing just an ID card.
Last year almost 750,000 Turkish tourists visited Batumi – more than any other nationality – and even more are expected this year. So every season bigger hotels are built. Glitzier casinos opened. And yes, even more colorful lights switched on.
Local shopkeepers say they are thrilled that the regional economy appears to be booming.
But on the other side of the border, in Turkey, people are a bit more ambivalent. One Turkish laborer says he is now addicted, and that he comes every other day after work to gamble – otherwise he feels sick.
He has neighbors in the village who have lost their businesses because of gambling debts.
In local mosques in Turkey, religious leaders say gambling is turning into a plague, which is destroying families – something many wives would probably agree with.
According to the Turkish embassy in Georgia, Turkish women regularly phone up the consul in Batumi asking for help to find their husbands in the casinos.
But considering what the situation was like here just a decade ago, the boom in tourism is impressive.
This region was run by a corrupt clan, headed by Aslan Abashidze – seen by some as a strongman who saved the region from the chaos of 1990s Georgia, but by others as a mafia boss, who was involved in organized crime, backed up by his own personal army.
Getting into the territory then meant passing numerous checkpoints, passport controls and inevitably paying bribes.
Aslan Abashidze’s son was rumored to close off the promenade regularly – the only stretch of road without potholes – to race his Lamborghini up and down.
When President Mikheil Saakashvili swept to power in Georgia proper after the 2003 Rose Revolution, he vowed to win back this stray territory. There were fears of civil war – but that was averted when Aslan Abashidze fled to Moscow.
And although he still faces 15 years in prison for embezzlement if he ever comes back to Georgia, and has even been charged with murder, the region around Batumi has become a model for how once-breakaway territories can be reintegrated and made to prosper.
So President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government today likes to hold up Batumi as a lure for people in Georgia’s two remaining breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which despite being backed by Russia, still show the scars of war, and have little of the glitz of Batumi.
It’s rather like how, before 1989, the US would show off the shining shop windows of capitalist West Berlin, to dark communist East Germany on the other side of the Wall.
So probably best if Georgia sticks to the Las Vegas or Monte Carlo analogies. I doubt talking about the joys of a Georgian Blackpool would quite do the same job.