Traveling by train, plane and cruise ship, the number of tourists flocking to Batumi, Georgia, is expected to hit 1.4 million this year, 10 times the level of 2005. This hot new vacation destination is becoming "in" destination of the Black Sea.
For Lucia, from land-locked Armenia, it is the sea. She says she comes for the sea and because Batumi is close to where she lives.
Samir, from Azerbaijan, lives on the Caspian Sea. But he and his family traveled 18 hours to enjoy Georgian hospitality, in Russian, a common legacy of their Soviet past. He says that Georgian hospitality reached a low point after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, he says the commercial lure of tourism means Russians are welcome again.
During the Soviet period, Batumi was the end of the line, only 15 kilometers before a closed border with Turkey, But now, neutrality pays off for Georgia. Armenians and Azeris, Iranians and Israelis, Ukrainians and Turks, all fly here visa-free to vacation in this port on the eastern shores of the Black Sea.
Iran recently opened a consulate on Europe Square, only blocks from the docks where U.S. Navy ships regularly make port calls.
Cruise ship visits have increased five-fold in five years. At Batumi’s new Turkish-built airport, flights now come here from 11 foreign cities.
With this tourist flood, international chain hotels are popping up. Last year, it was the lighthouse-inspired Sheraton. This year it is the Italian-designed Radisson.
Regional Governor Levan Varshalomidze says thousands of hotel rooms are under construction. "Last year, we had Sheraton opening, this year already Radisson, next coming for us is Hilton and Kempinsky, and continue Holiday Inn and different brands. In two-three years, we will have minimum 10 brands, but still it's not enough," he said.
Taking advantage of Batumi’s subtropical climate, the Governor has planted 700 palm trees and expanded a seafront boulevard to seven kilometers.
Construction projects include a pebble-shaped aquarium, a hot pink exhibition center in the shape of a cube, and a seaside pyramid hotel with hanging gardens.
Traditionalists do not like the daring designs and the casinos. In Tbilisi, opposition politician Nino Burjanadze, said, "Batumi was one [of] the most beautiful cities in Georgia. Right now it's a kitsch. You can see absolutely different buildings, which have nothing with the style with each other. You can see building, which has five-six different styles in one building, which is of course matter of taste."
But Vera Kobalia, as Georgia’s Minister of Economy and Development, has the job of attracting investment to find jobs for Georgians. She is a big Batumi booster. “Batumi, many investors, when they are coming are saying, is what Dubai was, is what Singapore was, years ago. They are seeing the same trends in Batumi. We ourselves didn’t expect how much investment we are seeing in Batumi today," she said.
News of Batumi’s building boom has traveled to New York. Last March, American real estate entrepreneur Donald Trump signed a licensing agreement to put his name on a 52-story hotel and office highrise: Batumi Trump Tower.
To further attract attention, Batumi sponsored concerts in recent weeks by Sting, the British rocker, and by Enrique Iglesias, the Spanish pop singer.
After languishing for decades behind a rusty Soviet fence, Batumi is booming by opening its doors to the world.