Issue 3, 2017. June-July

   

KUTAISI: BUILDING A NEW FUTURE FOR GEORGIA'S SECOND CITY

A new, fast train and international-brand hotel are driving home a city's ambitions to rebrand as a regional center for tourism.

Nanuka Bregadze

For the past two decades, Kutaisi has struggled. A former industrial center for Soviet Georgia, its dozens of factories were shuttered following independence.

Bagrati Monestary


Kutaisi was plagued by high unemployment and a massive exodus.

But a growing number of tourists and new, multi-million lari investment plans are feeding hopes Kutaisi can rebuild as a tourism and cultural mecca for western Georgia.

New Life for an Ancient City

An ancient city located 137 miles west of the capital, Kutaisi has long played second fiddle to Tbilisi.

But it is a town with a history of being great: it was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Colchis (archeologists have found evidence it existed in the 6th century BC) and served as the capital of the united Georgian kingdom between the 9th and 11th centuries.

It regained some of its past importance when the Georgian parliament was moved to Kutaisi and a new, modern airport opened in the city in 2012.

While those projects have not parlayed into the economic boom some hoped for, they have pushed Kutaisi into the limelight-restaurants and hotels have opened to serve members of parliament during the legislative sessions, and cheap flights from European cities have helped nurture the tourism industry in the region.

Prometheus Cave


In addition, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirkashvili promised a "fresh boost" for Kutaisi in April of this year.

A large, modern university campus is under construction, which will be connected to the Tbilisi Hi-Tech Center to create a single educational complex, he said.

"Kutaisi will become an international college town, which will give it a fresh boost. Historically, Kutaisi has been Georgia's cultural center, and it will also become an important business center, a vital hub for transport, logistics, and tourism," Kvirikashvili said.

Train to the Future

There are also plans to start a new, fast train service between Tbilisi's central station and Kutaisi airport next year.

"Kutaisi will become a very important center of Georgia's structural development. Georgia has a well-justified ambition of becoming a regional hub," Kvirikashvili said.

The fast train service requires a new, three-kilometer railroad and a new station near the Kutaisi airport. Work started on April 3 and is estimated to cost 5 million lari. The project is being funded by the Georgian Railway.

Officials are betting the new service, which will give travelers a direct link to flights in both Kutaisi and Tbilisi, will boost tourism to Kutaisi and the rest of the Imereti region.

Kutaisi Mayor Shota Murghulia told Investor.ge that the project should create jobs and help develop the service sector in the city.

"All projects that promote the development of the airport are very important for Kutaisi. First of all, [the fast train project] will help tourism development," he said.

"Additionally, the project can increase employment rates. When we are talking about this, we should think about it in two ways: firstly, the project will employ hundreds of people and secondly, increased tourist numbers will develop the service sector and thousands of people will see a profit. The project allows a great deal of potential, because two different types of transport are linked to each other."

Kutaisi, a former industrial center for in the Soviet era, may not strike the casual visitor as a natural draw for tourism.

Prometheus Cave


But the ancient city is full of quiet charm, and has a long history as a cultural capital for the country. In addition, there are dozen famous tourism sites within a day's drive of the city, including UNESCO World Heritage Site Gelati Monestary and the fossilized footprints of Georgia's very own dinosaurs in Sataplia Nature Reserve, to name a few.

The new infrastructure will make it easier for tourists to get to Kutaisi and explore the region, officials say.

Dachi Tsaguria, head of the Georgian Railways PR Department, told Investor.ge that the company expects 100,000 more passengers to ride the train once the new service is up and running.

George Molodinashvili, CEO of Aviation Consulting Group LLC, noted that the new rail service will make connections and air travel easier for passengers.

"In some European countries, a railway station has the function of an airport as well. This means that the passengers can pass through the railway station, hand off their luggage, and after getting to the airport with the train, they only have to pass through the aviation security procedures. Also, there are cases when, as a result of cooperation, airline and railway companies offer customers mixed air and rail shipping services," Molodinashvili told Investor.ge.

International Brands

Investors have also noted the potential. The first international brand hotel in Kutaisi-and the wider Imereti region of the country-opened in April.

"Studies show that there is big demand for tourism infrastructure in the Imereti region, because various tourist routes across western Georgia spread from Kutaisi. Also statistics say that our visitor flow is growing annually," noted Tariel Gabunia, head of the company Simetria, which built the hotel.

The Mayor told Investor.ge that Best Western is just the beginning.

"I am sure hotels will be constructed and other types of infrastructure will be developed in the area near the airport. The point is that many people gather there and such places are good for any business to be developed. As I know, negotiations have already started with the Ministry of Economy about the issue," he said.

"The process is already started in Kutaisi. There is planned construction of a new large hotel. Overall, the number of tourists and airport users will increase and that will improve, with a positive effect on the development of the entire city," he added.

Things to do in Kutaisi

Lonely Planet once described Kutaisi as a city that rewards a walker, which is a polite way of saying the good stuff is tucked away out of sight.

You may have sped past Kutaisi on your way to Batumi or scrambled to make the right turn to grab a burger at the McDonalds before heading out to the airport, and think you know the city.

But away from the highway and the central market, it is a city of small, tree-lined streets and crumbling sidewalks, split by the Rioni River. Here is a short list of places worth a visit in and around the city:

Satsnakheli, a Georgian wine cellar and taste room; Georgian and European food and live music can be found in the Palaty Bar - Restaurant; and the Almano Bar has traditional and nontraditional dishes, as well as live music and karaoke.