I was dreading my return to Tbilisi. The time I spent there in autumn 2011 was one of the best and most memorable of my travel adventures and I was simply afraid to face Georgia after all these years, I didn’t want to ruin perfect Tbilisi that was still so vivid in my mind. I was well aware a lot has change since then, most of all low cost airline started flying to Georgia bringing lots of tourists there. But while I was expecting to see too many lousy Polish people hoping to experience the incredible Georgian hospitality for free (sadly that’s often the case with travels to Georgia) I wasn’t fully prepared to see how Old Tbilisi is now…
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Problem with tourism in Tbilisi
First of all: I don’t have anything against tourism, if done wisely. Of course I’d personally prefer if some places stayed hidden gems, not discovered by many, so I could enjoy its authentic vibe. But that’s just my wishful thinking that has nothing to do with how the current world works. I perfectly understand that tourism can bring a lot of money that is especially needed in developing countries, such as Georgia. It can do a great change to the local community and its people when used properly. Unfortunately what I’ve seen in Tbilisi was just a complete opposition and for most of the time I felt that the city is just wasting its enormous potential.
Old Tbilisi – where the time has stopped
I remember Tbilisi as a charming city with a strong feeling of authenticity. It was especially present in Old Tbilisi – part of the capital that dates back to the 5th century yet was badly destroyed in 1795 during the Persian invasion. Most of buildings now represent eclectic architecture of 19th and early 20th century, some of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen can be found there. It feels like the time has stopped there: the laundry is hanging high above, kids are playing on the streets, every corner has a small shop with just about everything one might need, small craftsman shops are thrown around here and there. It’s a wonderful place to aimlessly wander around and to blissfully get lost.
Old Tbilisi is falling apart…
While I loved Old Tbilisi and it was my favorite part of the city both in 2011 and now, it broke my heart to see what’s happening with this district and how much it has changed in these 3.5 years. The place is falling apart, literally. There are so many houses that are haunting with empty windows and closed doors, so many ruins it is just unbearable to look at this wasted opportunities. Even the beautiful, renovated houses right in front of Narikala fortress while having fancy facades were ruined inside and I could easily walk in to see the enormity of destruction there. However one of the most touching spots was the church, probably pretty old one. It looks perfectly fine from the outside, even if a little bit neglected. The doors were ajar so I wanted to peek inside. To my great surprise the place was a ruin, without a roof or any equipment but with grass growing high and bricks strewn around… Wandering around twisting narrow lanes of Old Tbilisi really reminded me of my visit to Gyumri, still bearing scars from the tragic earthquake 26 years ago. The problem is Tbilisi didn’t experience such a natural disaster.
Old Tbilisi tourist trap
Kote Afkhazi street – the main street leading from the Freedom Square to the footsteps of Narikala fortress – has become a tourist fest too. Even if the pavement is crumbling and big holes where houses used to stand strike really bad most of the visitors can find all they need there. Souvenir shops, numerous stands with churchkhelas, overpriced wine places, fancy restaurants, bars attracting customers with names like KGB… It looks like yet another tourist trap, something that attract foreign visitors and can be found in most of the cities. On top of that there’s a red double-decker tourist bus so well known from all over the world, trying to push its way through this cobbled street. It just simply didn’t fit there and was the best sign for me of how Tbilisi is losing its unique identity to become yet another tourist destination.
Modern face of Tbilisi
Across the river Kura a modern part of the city is located, connected with Old Tbilisi by the Peace Bridge. This structure itself shows how the city doesn’t really have a clue how to reinvent itself in a new way. But what’s behind it is even worse. Rike Park might be popular among locals and the green space itself is fine. It’s just full of weird constructions like massive tubes that ruin the whole area. The modern glass and steal presidential palace overlook the place, as an opposite to the old fortress, giving the clear sign of the direction the modern Georgia has taken. On top of that there’s a ropeway connecting Rike Park with Narikala. It was built really fast – when I was in Tbilisi in October 2011 there were no signs of the constructions but it was already opened 6 months later! Sure, it makes getting to the top much easier (but the walk up there isn’t that hard anyway) but at the same time it fits there like a glove…
Visit Tbilisi before it’s too late
I really loved my time back in Tbilisi and still found my places, secret yards and shortcuts around. It felt like I left 2 weeks ago. But at the same time the city was so different and I had so many bitter observations about it. I just couldn’t bear how much money is spent on unnecessary modern version of the city while its true gem and the biggest potential – Old Tbilisi – is slowly falling apart and disappearing. The uniqueness and authenticity of the place can be soon gone and Tbilisi will become yet another tourist destination that can offer only pretty facades but nothing behind them. It’s good to invest money from tourism and to improve living conditions of local people and to create a better offer for visitors, but it just needs to be done smartly. I really, truly hope the local authorities will soon realize what their biggest asset is and will save Old Tbilisi before it’s too late…
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