Return to paradise - Russian tourists in Abkhazia

Petruț Călinescu / 11 July 2014
Joy and beauty in the ruins - a photo-journey through the beach resorts of Abkhazia, the frozen conflict neighboring the Winter Olympics in Sochi

On the shores of the Black Sea, 20 km from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, lies Abkhazia, a breakaway territory from Georgia.During the Cold War, this strip of coast was the prime holiday destination for the Soviet elite. The region’s snow-capped mountains descending into idyllic beaches surrounded by palm trees, mandarins, tea plants, clean blue water, the best Caucasian cuisine and a continental climate meant every Soviet citizen’s dream was to spend a holiday here. It was rumoured that only those citizens of the USSR who had “pleased” the Soviet regime received a voucher from the authorities to visit here - a place where Stalin also stayed in his favorite dacha (holiday house).

However since the territory’s War of Independence between 1992 and 1993, Georgia and its allies, including the U.S., have been effective in isolating the republic. Only five countries — most notably Russia, which maintains a large military presence in Abkhazia — recognize the territory’s independence.

Abkhazia paid a high price for its self-determination: its industry is in ruins and poverty is rampant - an average salary is less than 600 Euro per year. The future of the region it’s not clear and the Abkhaz are still deliberating what to do with their freedom. Nevertheless a growing invasion is happening every summer: the Russian tourists are back. Official numbers indicate almost half a million holidaymakers are coming annually - double the entire Abkhaz population. For the first time since the fall of the USSR, the Abkhaz beaches are full. But this time it’s not the elite. They are heading to Sochi. Abkhazia is hosting the middle class who cannot afford the high prices of the Russian resorts. Trains from Moscow to the beach resort of Sukhumi arrive daily in the summer - a 36 hour journey. If Russians are travelling from regions in the north and east, it can take up to 72 hours to ride into the sun. Many hotels are in ruins as Sukhumi, Gagra and Ochamchira beaches have been the scene of the heavy fighting during the war. Services are lacking the quality of the Cold War period, but nothing stands in the way of a nation willing to fulfill their lifelong dream: to spend a holiday in Abkhazia.

Pictures taken during 2010-2013. © Petrut Calinescu