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Georgia: Old Tbilisi – Decaying Beauty, or Birth of a Tourist Trap?

Old Tbilisi

 

Tourism, is big business. Big enough to change culture itself. Where there is a buck to be made, it will be made – as fast and as efficiently as possible. The architects of the capitalist world we live in are unstoppable, and cashed-up tourists are soft targets in this game. And so, Old Tbilisi, the historic quarter at the very heart of the modern capital city of Georgia, is being changed beyond recognition. Transforming from a beautifully decaying authenticity, Old Tbilisi is becoming a shiny and hollow scintillation, filled with evermore opportunities to load up on cheap souvenirs and imported beer. Is this the birth of yet another tourist trap?

Old Tbilisi is a centrally located neighbourhood, containing an assorted mix of buildings from as early as the 5th century. Today, the bulk of the structures are an eclectic collection from the 1800’s. Much like the nation of Georgia, the area has a long and at times tumultuous history. As a result of earthquakes, invasions, and a geographical location within the cradle of various historical empires, Old Tbilisi is completely unique – a diverse centuries-old urban layering, holding extreme importance to the nation of Georgia. Worldwide, the priority of preserving the district has been recognised by many independent international bodies. However, over the last decade or so, the future of the neighbourhood has been in grave danger of survival.

 

Typical street scene in Old Tbilisi, Georgia.

Typical street scene in Old Tbilisi, Georgia.

Old Tbilisi homes.

Eclectic architecture and palette of Old Tbilisi homes.

Doorway, Old Tbilisi house.

Doorway, Old Tbilisi house.

Old Tbilisi Church, Georgia

Decaying church in Old Tbilisi. Internally, the structure was braced with steel girders, and was too dangerous to enter.

Around every corner, decay. Old Tbilisi.

Around every corner, decay. Old Tbilisi.

Irresistible to tourists, for now. Old Tbilisi.

Irresistible to tourists, for now. Old Tbilisi.

Crumbling facade, typical of Old Tbilisi.

Crumbling facade, typical of Old Tbilisi.

Streets of Old Tbilisi.

Streets of Old Tbilisi.

Going, going, gone. Old Tbilisi.

Going, going, gone. Old Tbilisi.

 

 

Old Tbilisi – Neighbourhood? Tourist Attraction? Tourist Trap?

There are complex issues to consider in Old Tbilisi – not the least of which are the slum-like conditions that many residents in Old Tbilisi live with. Many of the structures are now uninhabitable, and beyond repair. Despite the obvious bewitching appeal of the streets, old Tbilisi could be holistically described as both “enchanting, and dismal“. It would appear wrong to be so nostalgically driven as to state that nothing should change in Old Tbilisi. But, it is important to remember that these neighbourhoods are special, unique, and unfortunately, endangered. In an ideal world, Old Tbilisi is a neighbourhood that retains authenticity, as well as quality of life for its residents.

Currently, older buildings are being replaced with architectural innovations in steal and glass. Disney-esque facadism is taking over – with Irish bars and “authentic” Soviet themed restaurants are housed in restored buildings that maintain little of the original charm. And no doubt, Old Tbilisi will be promoted by the local government as a tourism success story. A new and authentic neighbourhood fabric will be manufactured. Residents will be relocated. Corner stores will be replaced with souvenir shops. International franchises will move in. “Boutique Tbilisi hotels” will become an increasingly popular Google search keyword. Developers and entrepreneurs will be happy. The gentrified grand scheme will be complete, and it will be on to the next target. Viva, capitalism.

I was told that I needed to get to Georgia, before it changed. It’s something you get told a lot in the travel world. But in the case of Tbilisi’s old town, it’s judicious advice. In 2013, only small pockets of the “original” old town remain. These unprofitable enclaves will soon cease to exist within Old Tbilisi, as the value in the location of the land is unlocked. But, for now, the twisted back streets filled with gracious decaying buildings are, in my opinion, the number one tourist attraction in Tbilisi.

For now.

 

Nate.

 

PS, I will be leaving Georgia within a week. It’s been a fascinating and enjoyable time. Tbilisi has done for me exactly what I wanted it to – provide me an opportunity to get to know a new city, as well as get some rest after what has been a ridiculously busy second part of the year. After driving 11,000 km’s through 24 countries, I really needed a break. Now the break is over, this time next week I’ll …probably… be back on the road – heading towards a new destination. If you know your Geography, and you know how strong Nancy the 20 year old French hatchback is, you know I could end up anywhere. Any. Where.

PPS, if you sign up on the email list, you will find out where I’m headed, first.

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11 Responses to Georgia: Old Tbilisi – Decaying Beauty, or Birth of a Tourist Trap?

  1. Megan Dec 3, 2013 at 7:16 am #

    very perfectly put. all of it.

    when i was there, i felt that most of tbilisi was not really a secret like so many people had made it out to be. but when i got lost in the back alleys and certain areas of the city, i felt like i was in a different world, one that was still kind of a secret and authentic. but it was ABSOLUTELY falling apart.

    while i loved being there, i struggled a bit with the city. i actually enjoyed yerevan more because i felt it was more authentic outside of the main center. tbilisi has many, many americans, brits, and australians living there because of TEFL, so i often felt like i was in a tourist trap (no offense to my fellow countrymen) regardless of what part of the city i was in. there were bars named KGB, etc, and it did just feel like things have changed strictly for tourism…which is fine, because that is what happens. im all for cities developing tourism because it provides jobs and hope for a place that may have previously struggled with such things, but as a traveler to a location, it makes me a little less enthralled once i get there.

    i loved georgia, but im not sure im as eager to get back there as some other travelers. armenia, on the other hand, was more my speed for now. but surely it will end up similar to batumi or tbilisi at some point in the near future.

    in no way did i dislike my time there, it was just very interesting and insightful to see the direct impact tourism has on a city. while im excited for the residents of tbilisi and the jobs it will provide, it is a bit bittersweet to see parts of the culture vanish as the next best western or futuristic-looking building settles in.

    • Nate Robert Dec 3, 2013 at 8:25 am #

      Completely agree with everything you have said Megan. I’ve had some great nights here in Tbilisi, thanks to the abundance of English teachers and expats, which has been a welcome change compared to recent times. It’s easy to meet people as a foreigner/expat, and there are some great people here. Perhaps that indicates what a good city Tbilisi is – for actually living in. Tbilisi is an interesting place for sure, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I happened to stay here for an extended time.

      And yes, what’s happening is fine – as you say, it’s just “what happens”. If there is a need, and a market, for tourism – then that market should be allowed to develop and prosper. However, I will be in the minority when I say it just won’t appeal to me, as a tourist destination. As a home – that’s a different story.

  2. kami Dec 3, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    you wrote here what’s exactly in my mind about Tbilisi and what I tried to told you when I suggested it’s the place you should visit. This city is changing so fastly that I don’t recognize it anymore (for example I visited it in October 2011 and there were no signs of cable car being built yet it was already opened in April 2012…). Old Tbilisi was the place where I could spend hours and days just wandering around, chatting to people and getting lost and it breaks my heart when I hear what’s happening with this magical place. That’s also the reason why I’m not so eager of returning there, I’m just afraid that what I loved so much about this city is not there anymore…

    • Nate Robert Dec 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      Join me Kami, as we try to convince ourselves that the good things in life stay the same forever ;)

      In reality, we know that “progress” marches on, an at least we have our memories. But lets not call the death of Tbilisi – it’s a wonderful city, and hopefully, will continue to be a great, and unique, destination well into the future.

  3. Naomi Dec 4, 2013 at 12:18 am #

    The issue of Old Tbilisi’s redevelopment is a difficult one – on the one hand, the truly old neighbourhoods are so charming and so alluring, but on the other those buildings (especially the most damaged ones) must be real bastards to live in. I absolutely loved walking through the Old City, because it was full of that beautiful ornamental architecture just made more intriguing by how it was falling apart, but I also wouldn’t want to keep people in a shitty neighbourhood just because it looks cool. Of course, getting displaced because developers want to knock your house down isn’t any good either. Don’t think there’s any easy answer here, though I hope the city stops rebuilding and starts refurbishing.

    Will never forget the first time I wandered into one of those streets that’s been COMPLETELY redone, though. All those bright, shiny, pretty buildings done up like Disneyland – and the eerie sensation of absolutely no-one yet inside. Serious ghost town vibe, even though everything was brand spankin’ new. I’m curious to see what Old Tbilisi will look like in 10 years.

    • Nate Robert Dec 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

      Naomi! I had the same experience – wandering into a street that had been completely refurbished in Olf Tbilisi, I just felt nothing but dread. The three of us went into a restaurant, sat down, looked around (empty) and then left – never to set foot on that street again in the month I’ve been here. I actually stumbled across that street once more – and out loud said “WOAH! TURN AROUND!” haha.

      But you’re right, it is difficult situation. I think in this case, perhaps time has the last word. It’s old, run down, and in many cases beyond repair. I’m glad I got to experience Old Tbilisi now, but I will also remain hopeful that the best possible outcome occurs for the residents of the area.

      Thanks for your comment Naomi, I have come across your blog before, so glad to see you here.

  4. Raffaella Dec 18, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    It’s a shame the old buildings aren’t being restored – some beautiful and unusual architecture – though I suppose that may be impossible either because they are too far gone or the cost is too great. I don’t know much of anything about Georgia, though I vaguely recall the tumult with Russia over south Ossetia in ’08. While I can’t understand razing historic districts, hopefully it will bring an economic benefit to residents at the very least – assuming proceeds end up in the pockets of the average Joe.

    • Nate Robert Jan 9, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      Hey Raffalella…. yes, the buildings are so far gone, that I don’t think any amount of money will help (in many cases). Regarding South Ossetia – the whole region has seen indescribable terror over the last decade – particularly bad in Abkhazia. There are ongoing problems, but Tbilisi is totally safe. And I agree – as long as the benefits flow through to the residents, that’s the most important thing.

  5. Pedro @ Travel with Pedro Jul 31, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

    Hi Nate, it’s sad to see new glass buildings being built around Old Tbilisi. After falling in love with the city, I’ve been there four times in 18 months, and each time there’s a new souvenir shop, a new wine shop, more and more buildings in Old Tbilisi renovated in a very gentrified manner. I find that so sad, but that’s an inevitable fact. Unfortunately.

  6. Scott Aug 1, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Was “this” close (putting index and thumb together) to booking a trip to Georgia last fall, but it fell by the wayside. Great pics and it sure sounds like its a trip that needs to be resurrected … soon.

  7. Louise Oct 9, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    I visited Georgia in 2012, one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited. What’s going on with how they are trying to remake those old streets of Tbilsi reminds me so much of what was happening in Beijing back in 2006-2007 before the Olympics. Complete destruction of the hutongs only for them to be rebuilt in a completely faux tourist-tastic fashion. It was very, very sad to see

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