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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Georgian ski resort in Svaneti: Heli-skiing and summer skiing on the high peaks is likely to attract many skiers from around the world

There can be few more magical places in which to spend your Christmas or New Year's holidays than a snowy ski resort – guaranteeing you a white Christmas and New Year Eve. Still, choosing a destination for your ski trip can be confusing, particularly in Georgia when one takes into consideration the fact that there are now three ski destinations to choose from.

Traditionally, Gudauri in the Greater Caucasus and Bakuriani in the Lesser Caucasus were the two major alpine resorts for Georgia's winter tourism industry. However, starting from 2011, Mestia has emerged as a rival to the established destinations with its year-round ski resort in the high mountainous region of Svaneti, in the Caucasus Mountains.

Christmas week is considered the peak season for these resorts with visitors flocking to them to ski over the New Year and Christmas holidays. So to secure accommodation in any of Georgia's ski resorts, be prepared to pay more and book earlier than usual because almost all hotel rooms are likely to be booked for the Christmas period.

"Georgian winter resorts are fully loaded for the Christmas period," Kakhaber Gagloshvili, the Director of Info Tbilisi Travel, a local travel agency, told Georgia Today in a brief interview. "Every day we receive local and international calls from tourists asking for tour packages, but unfortunately there is not a single vacant room in all three resorts' hotels and guesthouses."

According to him, the reservation of rooms started a month before the season.

Maka Tabidze, 26, was lucky to reserve a group tour package in Gudauri last month. She says that going in a group is usually a lot of fun. "My friends and I booked as early as possible to ensure that there would be sufficient accommodation available and that we could all stay in the same place," she explained.

"Gudauri is best for amateurs and my group of five people plans to participate in an amateur Ski Championship in January," she added.

Experienced skiers can also find impressive opportunities in Gudauri with a slalom, a giant slalom, speed skiing and heli-skiing. The total length of its ski route runs to 25 km. The resort is one and a half hour's distance from the capital by car.

Bakuriani is famous for its pine forests and is suitable for any experienced skier as well as beginners, amateurs and professionals. Here the mountain slopes remain covered in snow for 4-5 months providing great opportunities for snowboarding. Bakuriani is two and a half hour's drive from Tbilisi by car.

While in Gudauri, the first, lower station is 1,990 meters above sea level and the upper station, known as Kudebi (Tails) is at 3,007 meters, in Bakuriani, the highest point used for skiing is Mount Kokhta (Smart), around 2,200 meters above the sea.

Bakuriani is also a favorite for families with kids.

"There's no time of year that's better for a family holiday than Christmas and no better place to spend a winter break than Bakuriani. My kids want meet the Georgian Santa Claus, or as he's also called, Father Christmas," says Tamuna, 34, who plans to see in January 7 - Orthodox Christmas - in Bakuriani and has booked a four night Bakuriani holiday where her whole family can enjoy the skiing in addition to a range of other winter activities.

"My kids believe that Father Christmas lives in the snowy mountains and they want to see his house," said Tamuna laughing.

As for Mestia, it is 480 km away from Tbilisi, 9-10 hours travel from the capital by car. It emerged as a rival to Bakuriani and Gudauri only last week and plans to receive its first winter tourists on 1 January, 2011.

Here the newly-constructed lift station is 1500 meters above sea level surrounded by 3,000–5,000 meter peaks. Heli-skiing and summer skiing on the high peaks is likely to attract many skiers from around the world. A day's skiing in Mestia costs 80 lari per person.

Since the highland resort is difficult to access in wintertime, a new airfield was constructed in Mestia, and opened by President Mikheil Saakashvili on December 24. Mestia is one of his favorite projects – he personally unveiled the launch of the initiative in January 2010 calling the project a "tourism miracle."

Nino Chubinidze, Sales Manager at Tetnuldi Hotel in Mestia welcomed the construction of the airport in Mestia in a telephone interview with Georgia Today. "It was impossible to invite visitors to Mestia in winter because there was no road and no airfield, [so I] hope that after opening the new airport, Mestia will attract interest from domestic and foreign visitors in winter."

The price for a return ticket to Mestia from Tbilisi is 150 lari.

The major hotels in Svaneti include the Mestia, Ushba, Tetnuldi, and Svaneti hotels which can accommodate 400-450 people. There are also 50 guesthouses which can hold 250-300 tourists in total.

Moreover, there are the same two choices of accommodation on offer in Bakuriani and Gudauri. On average, hotels cost $ 70-200 per person per day. Skis are available at 25 lari per day or 10 lari per hour; you need to pay 100-150 lari per hour for a Buran (snowmobile) and a trip by horse will cost you 50 lari per hour.

In order to get the word out that the winter resorts are indeed welcoming travelers with open arms, the government has been working on campaigns to help kick-start this season.

Maia Sidamonidze, Head of the National Center for Tourism, told Georgia Today that Music Festivals, Ski Championships for skiers of all abilities, and other entertainments are planned for this season. "Furthermore, tourists from Ukraine together with Ukrainian musicians will visit Mestia between January 7-8 when we're hosting a fantastic entertainment program," she added.

Meanwhile, industry insiders are looking at the sky and to the 2011 calendar for more snow and more visitors.