Residents of the legendary spa town of Borjomi have banded together to try to survive the disappearance of the summer tourism boom.
Streets glowing in the sunshine, the overlapping sounds of loud conversations battling for attention with the merry tunes of spinning carousels trying to entice passers-by. At first glance, it looks just like any other summer in Borjomi, a spa town in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region known for its mineral water and lush national park.
But, if you look a little closer you will see a shadow cast over all the cheerfulness that not even the brightest summer day can dispel. Every few steps, you can see a for-sale sign or an advertisement with the phone number of a tour guide who you know has barely received any calls since last summer. Behind every corner there is a newly constructed guesthouse — standing grim and empty since March.
‘It seems ordinary when you go to the city centre, and there are still many people around, but I know we all lost a lot and we are still losing’, Salome Abuladze, the owner of two guest houses and a tour organiser in Borjomi told OC Media. ‘If they don’t open the borders, I don’t understand how people will make a living.’
She recalls the previous year when she had guests from all over the world almost every day during the summer season. Even in the dead of winter, she had international guests.
But then came the pandemic, and the borders closed on 18 March. Salome, along with most other residents of Borjomi, lost their clients.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2019, travel and tourism comprised 26.3% of Georgia’s economy while tourism was responsible for 27.7% of all jobs.
‘No plan B’
Jemal Ghonghadze has been working in tourism for 11 years and has turned his love of horses into a profession. He organises horse rides and in 2020, he planned to expand his business and construct new stables. Instead, he had to fire four employees.
For the moment, there are 11 companies in Borjomi offering horse tours, but there was scarce competition between them due to the huge demand for rides. Since domestic tourism was re-allowed in the country in mid-June, Jemal has had one or two rides a week, a 90% drop in income for him, he said.
Though his wife’s income of ₾1,000 ($320) a month has helped keep the family afloat, Jemal is not optimistic. ‘As you can see’, he said. ‘My mood is not good. I don’t have a plan B, I only hope that the borders open soon.’
Georgian banks had instituted a three-month freeze on paying interest for loans, but residents say it is of little help so long as the tourists continue to stay away.
‘[The Georgian government] also gives us ₾200 ($64) per month, but what is ₾200?’ Salome added. ‘It is nothing.’
‘We all help each other’
‘This is Georgia, we support each other. When I have a good month, I help my friends and they do the same’, Tengiz Gogoladze who also provides horse tours in Borjomi told OC Media.
‘This year is terribly bad, there is nothing, it is very hard, but we all help each other and try to do small jobs here and there.’
Five years ago, Tengiz went to Europe to obtain certificates in equestrian coaching, as few others have them in the city, but ‘now they don't mean anything’, he said. ‘Since the pandemic, I have worked five or six times, and my horses are grazing by themselves in the forest.’
Tengiz Gogoladze’s grandson, Tengiz Maisuradze, is a professional kayaker. He decided to open a rafting centre in Borjomi with his friends after he stopped competing. It is an extreme sport that requires physical strength, medical training for the instructors, and a lot of concentration.
Despite having no tourists this summer, Maisuradze and his team have not lost hope. They practice daily, teach kids, and make plans to expand with the support of grants.
‘What do we do now? Nothing, we enjoy this gorgeous view. If you had come last year you wouldn’t have seen it so empty. This place is always full of people and life.’
But for now, as rafting doesn’t bring in any money, Tengiz is working to help excavate recently discovered archaeological sites in caves — another hope for future tourist attractions.
The tourism sector has not been the only victim of the pandemic. Khatuna Makharashvili built a greenhouse two years ago to grow organic tomatoes and cucumbers. This year she has sold them for ₾1.50 ($0.48) per kilogramme compared to ₾3 ($0.97) last year. In previous years, her vegetables were in high demand — bought by local cafés, hotels, and restaurants.
Growing the tomatoes in a greenhouse meant they were ripe in June, several months earlier than normal, which turned out to be too early with everything still closed. A drop in demand and the commensurate drop in income has led to a loss of motivation for Khatuna. ‘Everything here I do myself’, she told OC Media.
‘Now I just lost any motivation — that’s why it looks so neglected’, she added, after showing her greenhouse filled with weeds and with overripe tomatoes hanging heavy on dry stems.
Today, conversations about the future and the pandemic spark easily and while some people have secured savings or support, others are losing hope with recent announcements of a prolonged closure of the country.
Now neighbours rely on each other more than they have in years, and despite nature flourishing all around, life has felt frozen since March. Only with help from one another can they hope to make it through this long economic winter.