Issue 2, 2019. April-May

   

GEORGIA SKI RESORTS PREPARE TO HOST FREESTYLE SKI AND SNOWBOARD WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

Georgian ski resorts are steadily growing in popularity. The resorts are hosting more skiers and snowboarders but remain under developed. The government and international donors are planning major infrastructure projects, especially new roads, to make the resorts more accessible in time for the 2022 Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships.


The Georgian government and the international financial institutions are set to invest heavily in Georgia's two most popular ski resorts - Bakuriani and Gudauri. The planned projects and financing are earmarked to help prepare for the 2023 Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships, which will be held in both resorts.

This is the first time in the history of the event that Georgia will host the world championships, and the international attention underscores Bakuriani and Gudauri's growing stature as tourist destinations in the country.

Untapped potential

Bakuriani has long sought to position itself as an international ski destination. In 2006, the resort sought to be considered as a host for the 2014 Winter Games. Last year, the government also floated the idea of hosting the Olympics in 2030.

The Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships could serve as a good trial run: 21 countries participated in the event in the US this year.

To help prepare for the 2023 event, the European Investment Bank will give $2.36 million to construct a bypass road around Bakuriani which should be completed by summer 2019. The Bakuriani Municipal Development Fund, responsible for implementing the road, says that traffic jams in Bakuriani have become too frequent due to the absence of a road, hindering the movement of both tourists and locals alike.

Moreover, a new public parking area, sewage system, renovated central park and better municipal transport, in addition to a new road that leads up to the Mitarbi cable car, will also be provided for, Georgia's Ministry of Infrastructure says.

"At the next stage of the project, we will upgrade the main roads and streets, renovate buildings, create pedestrian and bicycle routes along the river and develop recreational zones in Bakuriani," the Ministry of Infrastructure told Investor.ge.

The resorts' growing popularity is also driving investment. In 2014, just 71,195 foreigners visited Georgia's ski resorts. In 2017, the number had doubled to 150,000 visits by foreigners alone.

Gudauri is the country's most popular resort, taking in the lion's share of visitors: 116,333 tourists in 2017, while Bakuriani took in 26,029 and Mestia hosted 7,085 in the same year.

For the nascent industry, that's nothing to sneeze at, but there is much room to grow, as evidenced by the fact that despite years of chaotic building and development, the Georgian Ministry of Infrastructure told Investor.ge that the existing infrastructure is not enough to serve the increased number of tourists.

In response, the Georgian Ministry of Infrastructure and Regional Development has decided to expand the resort, opening up slopes on New Gudauri, Lower Gudauri-Seturebi and Kobi-Gudauri.

The first step was completed in time for the 2019 ski season. Gudauri is now connected to Kobi (a village in Stepantsminda) by cable car: the Kobi-Gudauri cable car covers over 7.5 km in about 15 minutes and can serve about 2,800 passengers an hour.

The construction of more roads in the region, including six bridges and five tunnels on the Kvesheti-Kobi road, is also planned. Moreover, more advanced sewage and water supply systems will be put into place, and will be financed by the Asian Development Bank.

A natural ski paradise

Georgia's blooming status as a ski destination is to be expected - 66 percent of the country is covered in mountains, with ski elevations peaking above 3,000 meters above sea level. While Georgia enjoyed a solid reputation for skiing during the Soviet Union, it has taken nearly two decades to prepare the country's resorts for modern skiers and snowboarders.

Bakuriani, the country's oldest ski resort, was identified early. The Soviets started developing it for skiing in 1935. The location was used as a training base for the winter Olympics up until the 1970s and 1980s.


However, one of the country's most popular ski destinations largely lay dormant until an Austrian company was given a license in 1985 to build a hotel in Gudauri, a mountain village just 120 km north of Tbilisi.

The hotel, Marco Polo, opened in 1988 and survived the early years of independence by promoting a very niche form of skiing, heliskiing.

Given the fact that the extreme sport was still in its early development, it was not available everywhere, and in Georgia it was considerably cheaper than elsewhere. Gudauri was able to attract European ski buffs searching for adrenalin pumping runs.

This was followed by quick development in the 2000s, which has turned out to be both a blessing and a boon for Gudauri: the numbers of tourists are taking bounds and leaps, but the pace of development has forced the industry to take a more prudent approach to expansion, and address several other crucial infrastructure issues such as water and sewage systems.

Today private investors are building large-scale hotel and residence developments, in addition to the infrastructure works being financed by the state and international financial institutions.

International brand hotels are already taking an interest in the resorts' potential. Best Western Plus Bakuriani added 70 rooms to the resort's accommodation stock in 2017. Two other international projects -- Radisson Blu in Gudauri and Ramada Resort in Goderdzi - are reportedly underway.

Newcomers on the mountain

Goderdzi and Mestia (Tetnuldi and Hatsvali) ski resorts are the newest in the country.

Goderdzi ski resort came into existence quite recently in just 2015. Though it is still under development, its slopes are open to skiers, who can make use of a ski lift, several hotels in the area and restaurants. By its completion, the resort will have the capacity to entertain 7,500 skiers per day on 35 kilometers of trails and will be serviced by eight lifts.

Though a bit distant from the capital of Tbilisi, the Georgian National Tourism Administration is hopeful that new roads, for which plans have already been drawn up and financing secured, will stimulate the flow of tourists to Goderdzi, Adjara, in all seasons, from both near and far.

"Goderdzi and Batumi are a great combination, and will benefit one another, ensuring that the more seasonal tourism sectors in the area do not go neglected in the off-season", the head of the Georgian National Tourism Administration, Mariam Kvrivishvili, told Investor.ge.

Though Goderdzi is still quite a ways from completion, it already has much to offer.

"Goderdzi has some of the most breathtaking views of anywhere in Georgia - of anywhere in the world, for that matter. And that's one of the unique selling points of attracting travelers from outside the region to Georgia in general: to be at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, with spectacular views of the Caucasian mountains is an entirely unique experience", Kvrivishvili said.

Mestia, on the other hand, opened to skiers just seven years ago, but already offers winter sports enthusiasts the longest ski trails in the South Caucasus, in Tetnuldi - 9.5 km. It also has the largest vertical drop of 1.7 km. In total, the resort offers 30 km of tracks, and boasts the longest ski season in all of Georgia.

What's ahead on the trail?

The Georgian National Tourism Agency has been working in line with the country's tourism strategy, which has set out ambitious plans for the period spanning from 2015-2025.

By that time, Kvrivishvili said, one of the most important goals is to diversify the market.

"Adventure and ski tourism are on the top of our list, and we want to reach out and peak the interest of tourists not only from the region, but from all over, including Europe, Israel, China and beyond. By 2025, we want to see the percentage of tourists coming to Georgia from our neighboring markets (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine) go down to 70% of the total market share, down from its current position of around 85%, and for tourists from other regions of the world to take up a bigger share of the pie.

"Georgia is uniquely placed to attract experienced skiers from Europe and elsewhere searching for a real adventure. It might even be that by 2025, we've even surpassed the goals we set out for ourselves", Kvrivishvili said.