Tskaltubo is located 15 km northwest of Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city. The town’s history as a spa resort in the Soviet period has given it a repository of tourist experience to fall back on. An ongoing complication in this development arises from the occupation of the now-decaying Soviet-era sanatoria by internally displaced Georgians fleeing the conflict in Abkhazia, and another stems from the persistence of fundamental, unresolved infrastructure issues.
The last years an increasing number of visitors travelled to Tskaltubo, who have reported on their experiences and shared photographs on numerous websites and blogs. This group of travellers prizes out-of-the-ordinary encounters, taking place within architecture bearing impressive witness to a defunct bygone era, with local people living precariously in the wake of traumatic experiences and the loss of their worldly goods. Without wishing to doubt the genuineness of this interest in others’ difficult experiences and lives, it would not be inappropriate to refer to such tourism as ‘poverty tourism’ (‘poorism’). Soviet nostalgia is another factor behind the renewed spa tourist trade. Nevertheless it’s a form of tourism that insulates itself from the de facto reality of Tskaltubo as a refugee camp with precarious living conditions. Despite these difficulties, the residents of these complexes invest what they can in order to sustain and maintain their immediate surroundings.
The bazaar represents the centre of the city. It is the place where the people from Tskaltubo and the surrounding little villages meet. Additionally, it is a traffic hub where busses arrive and taxi drivers wait for customers. The bazaar building was constructed in the style of Soviet modernism with a lot of glass, iron and concrete. Its structure is more and more decaying. However, groceries, clothes, electronic devices and other convenience goods are sold on the ground-floor and on the first floor.
Most of the vehicles in front of the building are in a condition which would prevent them from being driven in Europe. Due to high rates of unemployment, many men have been forced to become taxi drivers. They usually spend most of their days waiting. Fares are low (about 1 $ per taxi and person for a ride from Kutaisi to Tskaltubo, 0,30 $ for the bus ride). Still the poorest cannot afford the ride.
The little bazaar behind the building illustrates the restricted financial capacities of the people from Tskaltubo. It shows what it means that more than fifty percent of the population in Georgia have to lower their household expenses by growing vegetables and fruits. There is obviously not much money circulating since many people are forced to live like that. Consequently, it is also hard for the traders to make a profit on the markets.
“In Abkhazia we had houses, gardens, everything we needed. Life in Soviet times wasn’t easy as well, but we had our monthly salaries. Without the garden here we took from a former sanatorium’s park we couldn’t survive”, explained a 60 years old stallholder who doesn’t want to be named. “Sometimes we spend the whole day here for an intake of only a dollar or two”, added his neighbour.
The circumstances of life in Georgia are highly dependent on chance and tend to be outside individual control. The economic and social crisis which rocked the country brought with it a decline in skills which the poor state of the country’s education systems exacerbated. Poverty perpetuates itself down generations. In accordance with these difficult circumstances, labour migration, trade in home-grown produce at small-scale markets, and family and clan networks continue to be mainstays of economic survival in Georgia. The ‘Caucasus Barometer’ for 2017 reported that 22 per cent of the population found themselves with insufficient funds to feed themselves and their families daily in the course of a month, while 30 per cent, although they had enough money for food, could not afford clothing. The proportion of those dependent on the proceeds from selling the produce of small-scale subsistence farming stood at 24 per cent, and only 40 per cent received a more or less regular wage. Of those deemed low earners, 10 per cent reported needing a minimum of 250 $ per month to cover necessary household expenses for themselves and their families and live ‘normal lives’; less than half (47 per cent) of the population have household incomes of 50-250 $. For some years, reports have been emerging of increasing levels of household debt in Georgia, accrued in what are usually futile attempts by families to lift themselves out of the poverty trap.
“We borrowed money to pay the flight ticket for our son to work in Poland. He worked there with a group of young men from Tskaltubo for three months, but they have never been paid. Now we have to pay the depth for tickets the interest rates. Since we left Abkhazia we are caught in trap”, said Guram, a 50 years old fugitive who doesn’t want to be called by his family name.
At the little bazaar no stallholder offers his goods, the women, often wearing a headscarf, look uninvolved. Every customer examines carefully before purchasing something. They all seem aware that the 18 $ the state gives to every refugee every month have to be invested with care.
But even here, at this place, that appears like a negation of life if you bear in mind the decades of improvised life after the displacement of Abkhasia, you meet generous and cheerful people that seem to be content with what they have.