The plan of Tskaltubo as the ‘Spa Capital of Eastern Europe’

Part III: The problem of selling off public goods to foreign investors and consumers

The spatial and object worlds in the plan of Tskaltubo as the ‘Spa Capital of Eastern Europe’

Alongside Tskaltubo’s built heritage, hopes of resurrecting the town as a ‘Spa Capital of Eastern Europe’ draw on the generally increasing numbers of visitors to Georgia as a whole (8,700,000 came in 2018; 2018) and the town’s eminently reachable location close to the currently booming International Airport of Kutaisi, which has experienced a 40% increase in passenger numbers from 2018 to 2019 and processed 719,324 travellers between January and October 2019 (cf. BME 2019). All previous tourism marketing strategies of the Georgian state to rebuild Tskaltubo as the Spa Capital of Eastern Europe relied on the success of the resettlement process of the displaced people to attract interested foreign investors. To this day, however, internally displaced persons still live there and reconstruction of the old sanatoriums has not yet begun.

Overview and some background

As a result of the war in Abkhazia about 10,000 of the approximately 250,000 Georgians who flew the conflict were accommodated in the sanatoria of Tskaltubo. As they had been living in Abkhazia for several generations, they lost all their property with the expulsion from their homes (cf. Zhvania 2010 for an overview on the privatisation of residential property in Georgia). This left them at an acute disadvantage when it came to rebuilding their lives; many remain living in the sanatoria to this day (cf. Mestvirishvili 2012 on structures of social exclusion in Georgia). The article series gives an overview on today’s Tskaltubo’s urban space as a space of conflict around the interpretation of its material space between the resident displaced persons, tourist industry stakeholders, NGOs active in the town, and various groups of tourists.

Map 1: Tskaltubo’s location in Georgia; the map shows key transport routes and border crossing points to neighbouring states

Read Part I: From Soviet paradise to a material symbol of the decline of the Soviet system and the crises of the new Georgia

Read Part II: In search of the extraordinary spatial experience – the late modern tourist self on expedition in the material space of Tskaltubo

Accordingly, the continuous aim for a number of years has been to issue upbeat reports on this process (cf. Agenda.Ge 2019, 2017); the precarious situation of the remaining IDPs has found mention only in publications by NGOs. Lyrical descriptions of Tskaltubo’s architectural and spatial potential linked to its Soviet-era glory days have gone hand in hand with resounding silence on the actual numbers of IDPs still living in the sanatoria, unable to escape the precarity of their set-up without assistance due to the severe limitations on their economic means.

The glory days of Tskaltubo

The first and then twice reactivated plans set out in the blurbs for the new spa development proceed show the following logics. The renovation of the town’s innermost area forms the starting point: ‘The sanitary zone and park were again the center of attention in the master plan. Concentric grid streets were planned around the park. The first central circle road around the park was for the visitors in the resort; the second main town circle was for the transportation of cargo and transport traffic in general. The third circle was planned to partially secure the second circle. This planning scheme defined Tskaltubo’s future functional and spatial structure for the next 30 years, and its impact continues even today’ (Partnership Fund 2018, 5; Kohl & Partners 2014, 24-27).

From left to right: Miner’s Sanatory, Hotel Gelati, Sanatory Medea, Sanatory Rkingzeli, Hotel Tskaltubo

But in the year 2018, the centre area renovated in 2014 was already derelict or decaying once again, having received no momentum from that initial flurry of activity, directed as it was at the handful of tourists whose financial situation enabled them to pay the high-end prices charged by the two four-star hotels in operation.

Map 2: Tskaltubo’s central area, with its former sanatoria and prospective developments

The area designated in the plans as located between the ‘second’ and ‘third circle’was and is inhabited exclusively by IDPs, although numbers have declined between 2014 and 2018; as such, there was nobody who could have used the renovated areas in the manner envisaged by the plans. It is evident that the IDPs themselves have no interest in the conservation and renovation of this area; they are not the target group of these plans, which do not consider or mention their interests at all. Indeed, the ideal case, from the perspective of these renovation endeavours, would see them vacating the facilities; the company of refugees has no part in the tourist experience as thus designed.

In other words, the segmentation of the IDPs as a collective, in the plans drawn up by the Partnership Fund, causes them to virtually disappear (see also the literature aimed at tourists issued by the Tskaltubo Municipality, undated, a, b). The plans point to them as designated objects of reintegration (‘Start Reintegration IDP’, Partnership Fund 2018, 15), yet it is a reintegration assigned to take place outside the bounds of Tskaltubo, or on its outskirts, at purpose-built resettlement destinations with inadequate social, economic and educational infrastructure. In light of the prevailing conditions, resettlement, in this case, is likely to be detrimental rather than conducive to integration, taking place, as the plans will it to, in economically, socially and ecologically deprived spaces. It would exacerbate the segmentation and segregation already at work, thus reinforcing the idea of IDPs as a collective unto itself, regardless of the diverse backgrounds of the individuals who comprise it.

Tskaltubo’s material and non-material social world as a contested interpretive arena

The main aim is to present Tskaltubo’s built space as empty and available for investors to take free rein. It is a strategy that compounds the local situation by seeming to induce state authorities to view the solution as removing the IDPs from the space (cf. Municipality of Tskaltubo 2018, 8) and leaving all further action to private, non-state actors (cf. Dumbadze 2019, Sharashidze 2019), evidently in the hope that the benefits of tourism to local populations, as in other regions of Georgia, will materialise by the by without requiring any state-driven development strategies. All these measures have created thus far, however, is an emergent ghettoisation on the fringes of the prospective ‘Spa Capital of Eastern Europe’.

The comparisons of existing, new and planned objects, spatialities and temporalities, stakeholder-generated definitions of the subjects and collectives involved, and interviews and participatory observation for recording the practices of those involved on the ground, allow us to identify modes of segmentation with excluding and instrumentalising facets as crucial for the production of the social, in this case spatialities and subjects/collectives of Tskaltubo.

Figure 1: Tsqaltubo’s material and non-material social world: a contested interpretive arena (Applis & Tserediani 2019; on the concept of social worlds/arenas cf. Clarke 2005)

Thus far, Tskaltubo’s built spaces appear as contested arena of interpretation at the centre of conflictual attributions, a space within which state actors and private business initiatives seek to erase a third of the population from the visible scene. All their communication strategies appear to be targeted at giving the impression that it is possible in Tskaltubo to write a new chapter of the old spa-town success story resuming directly from the last – if only an economically powerful external investor were to seize the initiative.

The problem of selling off public goods to foreign investors and consumers

Projects such as that advanced by the Tskaltubo Partnership Fund, while they seek to adapt the status quo to current tourist developments, exclude the overwhelming majority of the Georgian population, predicated as they are on the travel behaviours of middle and higher-income and wealthy members of prosperous societies.

None of the plans presented thus far takes proper account of Tskaltubo’s socio-economic specificities or seeks to bring civil society on board. One instance of this manifests in the failure to examine whether civil society stakeholders need generally to receive a right of veto over the sale of assets in public ownership on this sort of scale. The plans to date figure members of ‘civil society’ only as potential employees in a yet distant future, that is, as objects segregated from the current sphere of action and labelled with a particular function.

Some of the courageous people of Tskaltubo: #PeopleofTskaltubo, people from Abkhazia.

The public criticism expressed by Georgia’s four largest NGOs in response to the most recent initiative, the first substantial dissenting voices to be raised in the process, is in line with the findings of my analysis in this regard (cf. OSGF 2019). One particular point of disquiet with the plans is the state’s de facto admission of incompetence as revealed in its offer to transfer all Tskaltubo’s publicly owned assets to private individuals (cf. Jam News 2019). Further, the NGOs have pointed out that the plans are a further step along the path to the development of worrying monopolies which leave Tskaltubo wide open to abuses of power by individuals, particularly such individuals with extremely close links to a particular political party, as is the case with Bidzina Ivanishvili. As soon as such large-scale public assets are sold, the NGOs argue, the state loses any say in protecting and preserving the local built cultural heritage and, above all, relinquishes control of public access to that heritage and its associated use (cf. OSGF 2019, Jam News 2019, Lomsadze 2019). The interviews I conducted during the final phase of the research confirm the distrust, previously identified in a number of publications, felt by local stakeholders towards state institutions. There is an evident fundamental belief among this group that all opportunities for oneself or one’s descendants to experience state support for individual welfare – such as access to a spa cure – died with the Soviet Union, and the takeover of the local ensembles by an individual such as Bidzina Ivanishvili at least holds out prospects that one might attain a modest income from international visitors coming to the town.

Generally speaking, the potential for success of Georgia’s revitalisation as a tourist destination in the fight against the ongoing poverty in the country cannot be denied (cf. the detailed discussion in Metreveli and Gogorishvili 2016). Soviet-era tourist towns and cities such as Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Borjomi, Tskaltubo und Batumi are in a particularly felicitous position for developing an informal tourist sector, due to their residents’ experience of renting out rooms to visitors in that period (cf. Schlögel 2017, 305ff., on the overbooking of health, spa and holiday resorts both on an informal basis and by design). However, the interests of this stakeholder group are in opposition to those of members of groups like the IDPs, who stand in our example in the way of Tskaltubo’s tourist transformation due to settlement and integration policies mishandled, frequently for political reasons, but also owing to a lack of resources.

Go back to Part I: From Soviet paradise to a material symbol of the decline of the Soviet system and the crises of the new Georgia

Go back to Part II: In search of the extraordinary spatial experience – the late modern tourist self on expedition in the material space of Tskaltubo

A look ahead

A look forward reveals little indication of any certainty as to whether such a transformation stands a chance of sustained success. If policy proceeds in the same manner as it has thus far, the achievement of the objectives set in the plans for Tskaltubo’s future, however vaguely their hoped-for results are formulated, would seem to be impossible in the time thus far allotted; it is likely, then, that the funds invested to date by the state will be sunk costs. The difficult paradox here is the dual status of Tskaltubo’s built space as possessing outstanding potential, at least in principle, for a mass tourism typical of late modernity and simultaneously as standing in the way of that development. Severe declines in the value of this built space have resulted from years of consistently misleading information policies as regards socio-economic conditions in the town. Further, an evident inclination on the part of state stakeholders to regard the involvement of wealthy investors as a preferred solution to the area’s problems bodes ill for an appropriate consideration of the public interest going forward.

Text: Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: Stefan Applis (2018, 2019, 2020)

References: (ed.) (2017): 8 IDP families receive new flats in central Georgia. (Date: 26 January 2020) (ed.) (2018): Eight million tourists visited Georgia in 2018. (Date: 26 January 2020) (ed.) (2019): More than 700 IDP families to receive homes in Tskaltubo, Georgian balneological resort. (Date: 26 January 2020)

BME (Buisness MEdia Georgia) (ed.) (2019): Passenger Traffic Increased by 40% at Kutaisi International Airport in 10 Months, 2019. (Date: 26 January 2020)

Dumbadze. A. (2019): Ministry of Economy Plans to Develop the Tskaltubo Resort According to a 6-point Plan. Georgai Today. (Date: 26 January 2020)

Jam News (ed.) (2019): Charity or racketeering? Ruling party leader Ivanishvili to buy up hotels in Tskaltubo resort town. (Date: 26 January 2020)

Kohl & Partner (2014): Technical Proposal for the Tskaltubo Spa Resort Development A report submitted by Kohl & Partner. Market & Technical Feasibility with Tskaltubo Vision Proposal. Kohl & Partners, Switzerland.

Lomsadze, G. (2019): Georgia’s billionaire boss to rebuild radioactive Soviet spa. Eurasianet. (Date: 26 January 2020)

Metreveli, M. and Gogorishvili, I. (2016): Tourist production and regional development. In: Zbuchea, A. and Nikolaidis, D. (eds.) (2016): Responsible Entrepreneurship. Vision, Development and Ethics. National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. Bukarest, 184-198.

Municipality of Tskaltubo (2018): Economic Development Plan. Tskaltubo. Georgia. (Date: 26 January 2020)

OSCF (Open Society Georgia Foundation) (Ed.) (2019): NGOs respond to Ivanishvili’s plans for Tskaltubo. Georgia. (Date: 26 January 2020)

Partnership Fund (2018): Medical and Wellness Spa Development. Partners: Kohl & Partners, geographic, Nola 7, Georgian State, (Date: 26 January 2020)

Schlögel, K. (2017): Das sowjetische Jahrhundert. Archäologie einer untergegangenen Welt. C.H. Beck: München.

Sharashidze, G. (2019): Exclusive Interview with Ivanishvili – New Opportunities for Georgian Business.—New-Opportunities-for-Georgian-Business (Date: 26 January 2020)

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