Our final destination is Batumi, the second largest Georgian harbour after Poti, but, at the same time, the most important resort for Georgians. After leaving behind Poti’s apocalyptic landscape, we hit the road, our minds imbued with all kind of scenarios. None of them positive. We drive through Kobuleti, a small Black Sea resort - with resorts on the shore - whose renovation works are in full swing. Elegant…fifty years ago. As we enter Batumi, we regain our composure – it’s a town whose architecture is distinctive of Tsarist Russia, a town in which huge investments have been made. By the sea, old one-story stone houses with long wooden terraces stand as if arranged on a string. Behind them, concrete towers heave into view, future luxury hotels glued to the sea, but pretty decent-looking in key with what seems to be a general and organized plan.
The Old Centre in the harbour area still preserves its authentic atmosphere. The sewage system and street renovations are being worked on tooth and nail. A mind of genius has suddenly thought of ‘laying open’ every street downtown, although only a handful of workers are involved in the renovation process. That translates into a horrid car ride in search of a hotel. The car dances from one crater to another. Besides, it seems the locals are having fun by randomly posting hotel signs on buildings. We enter such buildings a couple of times ‘fascinated’ by the firm sign which say those are hotels. We make our exit the same way we made our entrance. No trace of a hotel or of renovation works. An old woman crocheting and a bored neighbour explain through gestures that there isn’t any hotel.
The old harbour is used less and less. On shore we see a school-ship and a hotel imitating an old wooden ship. The cargo harbour, though not very in demand nowadays, still delivers enough sailors who add a bit of colour to the bars of the Old Town centre. Right next to the harbour the ratchel beach starts off. At lunchtime, the place becomes flooded with children coming from school. In front of us, a more animated group of students leave their backpacks and start to gather seashells which they cook on a tray on an improvised fire.
The beach stretches out for many more kilometres and here’s where massive investments in Batumi are really striking. Local journalists maintain that many luxury constructions are just means of money laundering. Old buildings that have been renovated look so new that they actually resemble theatre scenery. A Sheraton has already been opened and next in line are Hilton, Hyatt and other similar names. Casinos are also part of future business plans though they are strictly forbidden in Turkey, the neighbouring country. Renovations and newly erected buildings have transformed this part of town into an immense all-inclusive resort. When the works are done, great part of Batumi will look as kitsch as Disneyland, but it will surely constitute a great tourist attraction.
The goods harbour in Batumi has been leased for a period of 49 years to KazTransOil, subsidiary of the KazMunayGaz Group which purchased Rompetrol from Dinu Patriciu1. Georgia is packed with Rompetrol gas stations and Patriciu’s name comes up quite often in articles written by journalists in Tbilisi. Together with a former Georgian prime-minister he has bought shares in a local bank. Journalists say that Patriciu is interested in real estate projects in Batumi and he is currently running negotiations for gas exploitation licences in the Black Sea, out on the Georgian coast. Who knows...maybe at the next Georgian presidential elections, Saak'ashvili will babble:“???????? …??????????!” (approximate translation: ‘Shame on you, Dinu Patriciu!’)
1 Dinu Patriciu: chairman of the board and CEO of the Rompetrol Group, NV. According to Forbes, as of 2008, Dinu Patriciu is the richest man in Romania.