Abkhazia & Crimea: Competing for Russian Tourism?
By: Heidi Koelle
Annexation of Crimea
One issue that left the Abkhazia slightly fearful following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the concern of losing tourism to the newly annexed territory of Crimea. Many Russians in the year 2015 decided to go to Crimea for the summer as their patriotic duty (Fischer 2016).
Abkhazia has one million Russian tourists visit Abkhazia every year, making up the bulk of its tourism industry. Even with the annexation of Crimea, the number actually increased in 2016.
The reason for this increase can be accredited to the strained relations with the West and the declining value of the Russian Ruble (Balmforth 2016).
In addition, the lack of tourists going to Turkey and Egypt has contributed to the rise in tourism from Russians to Abkhazia and other more local regions.
The local tourism industry in Abkhazia has bet on this as a trend that will continue into the future and is rapidly building more private hotels to satisfy demand.
The infrastructure and services are not as developed other places in the region, but it still provides for a nice holiday for the less wealthy Russians (European Council of Foreign Relations 2016).
Abkhazia has a deep history of Russian tourism. Abkhazia was a very popular holiday destination for the Soviet elite, including Stalin himself.
Vtandil Gartskiya, the region’s self-appointed tourism minister, says foreign visitors are the “locomotive” of the local economy. He added that every year the area sees a rise in 20% in tourism ( Balmforth 2016).
While the property ownership laws are an issue for foreign investors in Abkhazia, it has not suffered as much. Although the dramatic rise ceased in 2017 with rapprochement with Turkey, this caused the number of Russians visiting Abkhazia in the summer of 2017 to be 30 percent lower than last year, when the number had reached 1.1 million by early September (Fuller 2017).
In the years following the annexation, the economy of Crimea has suffered from the lack of private investors. As such, most of the investments and growth come from Kremlin subsidies (Alikin 2017).
Alikin states in his report that the unfair treatment of the authorities also cause investors to alienated. The foreign sanctions have not helped Crimea either. Ordinary Crimeans complain that after being incorporated into Russia, they saw prices double and incomes dry up as vacationers, especially from Ukraine and other European countries, stayed away.
Deliveries of supplies from the Ukrainian mainland were cut, making the region of 2.3 million almost entirely dependent on shipments by ferry from Russia (NPR 2018). In turn, Crimea has had a decline in tourism and this decline is predicted to stay.
A big push by the Russian government for more tourists in Crimea could potentially put a strain on the industry in the Republic of Abkhazia, as Abkhazia does not see as many tourists from outside of Russia.
Up until the very recent ban on flights to Georgia from Russia, the Republic of Georgia was also heavily benefiting from Russian tourism. Over a million Russian citizens visited the Republic of Georgia in 2017 and they still made up for the 3rd spot in tourism to Georgia (Georgian journal 2018).
Although with the recent ban place, it is certain Russian tourism will drop to the Republic of Georgia. Although this does not mean necessarily that these tourists will go to Abkhazia instead, Abkhazia has set some measures against foreigners which have stunted its tourism industry.
Abkhazia placed a measure in 2014 which bans foreigners that reside in the country of owning property. This includes citizens of the Russian Federation and foreigners with a residence permit.
The debate of allowing Russians to own property remains to be a divided subject within Abkhazia. A lot of Abkhaz citizens feel that if Russians were to own property that this would enable too much outside influence.
Abkhazia however, would benefit from an influx on Russian investors. Russian investors would help the Republic of Abkhazia immensely from an economic perspective. However, continuation of the current policy might isolate the Republic of Abkhazia from its main support system - Russia.
Addition to the harsh property laws enforced in the country, The Republic of Abkhazia passed a measure this year which makes it impossible for “foreigners” to lead tours, allowing only local citizens to guide private tour.
While Abkhazia tourism industry has seemingly benefited since the annexation of Crimea in the short run, the long term forecast for Russian tourism has many uncertainties. Abkhaz property laws and Kremlin determination to send more tourists to Crimea, could be a potential setback for the tourism industry in Abkhazia in the future.
Alikin, A. (2017, March 10). Crimea Struggles to Attract Private Investment. Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/crimea-struggles-attract-private-investment
Balmforth, T. (2016, June 19). Russian Return To 'Soviet Riviera' Brings Hope, Concern To Breakaway Abkhazia. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/abkhazia-soviet-riviera-russians-returning-hopes-concerns/27807503.html
Fuller, L. (2017, August 28). Analysis: Does Rising Crime In Abkhazia Pose A Threat To Russia? Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/abkhazia-unemployment-russia/28701606.html