President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration is trying to implement a bold plan to turn Georgia’s highest mountain peaks into a world-class recreational playground. The project is proceeding even though a study to evaluate its environmental sustainability has yet to be completed.
The rugged region of Svaneti, which borders Russia to the north and separatist Abkhazia to the west, is already well known for its traditional ways and stunning mountain vistas. Although its paved roads -- first built in the 1950s -- remain derelict, the region has become an increasingly popular among hikers and adventure tourists. An estimated 10,000 people visited Svaneti in 2010, a 40 percent increase from last year, according to the Department of Tourism.
Saakashvili administration officials are now hoping to take Svaneti one step further, by turning it into a “Switzerland in the Caucasus,” complete with ski slopes and air access to a Black Sea resort. The project has already generated about 200 jobs for the local population.
A new 182-kilometer highway is being built to the regional capital, Mestia, and Mestia’s airport is being upgraded to handle commercial passenger planes. The entire project, which is estimated to cost over 45 million lari (about $25 million), is expected to be complete by 2011. Funding is coming from the state budget, including part of a $300 million loan from the Asian Development Bank.
During a recent trip to Mestia, construction was bustling in the shadows of the 12th century defensive towers that dot the valley. About 40 kilometers of the new road already have been finished and the basic contours of the airport and its new runway are complete. The first ski trail is expected to open in December.
In approaching the project, developers encountered an unusual hurdle: land boundaries are poorly marked in the mountain communities of Svaneti since property holdings have been in families for generations, and have been recognized without deeds. The vagueness of titles, in at least one instance, was the source of an alleged land fraud scheme.
In July, Mestia council member Neli Naveriani, a political opponent of the governing United National Front Party, was arrested for allegedly attempting to extort money from a Canadian investor for land she claimed belonged to her family. Three of Naveriani’s relatives were also arrested in the alleged scheme. Protests broke out over the arrests, as Naveriani’s supporters saw a political motive behind the incident.
Nina Khatiskatsi, a program director with Transparency International Georgia, noted that Naveriani was one of the few to speak out against an alleged attempt to coerce opposition members into withdrawing from participation in last May’s local elections. Another activist was threatened, and his relative was arrested in August, as well.
“[I]t is a quite clear message that people who are speaking out and who were critical -- all of them are having problems,” Khatiskatsi claimed. The government has denied the arrests were politically motivated.
Acting Mestia government head Shmagi Nagani acknowledged that locals were “unhappy” about Naveriani’s arrest, but maintained the incident did not dampen enthusiasm for the project. “People are not satisfied, but they have calmed down because they thought the land was lost without compensation,” he said.
The central government is paying three lari (approximately $1.66) per square meter for the land – whether registered or not -- that is affected by development. The price represents nearly a four-fold increase over prices before development work began.
Georgian non-governmental organizations, meanwhile, have raised questions about the sustainability of the resort plan. Environmentalists point out that Svaneti is prone to landslides, mudslides and other natural disasters. Nagani maintained that none of the projects are located near traditional danger spots for such disasters. Unfortunately, Nagani doesn’t yet have hard data to support this assertion. That’s because an environmental impact study has yet to be completed. A Georgian firm, Geographic, along with a Canadian company, Ecosign, are working on the impact study. Giorgi Gotsiridze, a co-founder of Geographic, which is also developing the master plan for the ski slopes, said the impact study is nearly complete.
But with just weeks remaining before the planned December opening of the first ski run, there would appear to be little time for public discussion about possible environmental threats. Developers cannot even say yet how many ski trails will eventually exist.
Hopeful that development will bring a surge of revenue into the region, locals with a stake in the project maintain they have done their homework. “We started to build the ski runs last year,” said Tezo Japaridze, a hotel co-owner who is credited with spearheading the ski resort initiative. “[Officials] sent experts for one week to look and see where it is possible to build ski runs and where it is not possible. They said our location is the best for good runs.”
Local officials see the resort concept as Svaneti’s best bet for prosperity. “Tourism is, in general, the only path for the region to develop economically,” Nagani said.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.