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.
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.
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.