Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Georgia on my mind as the fog of Abu Dhabi clears

by Peter Hellyer

06.01.2015. It’s become a family tradition in recent years to slip away over New Year to somewhere not too far away – no point in spending too many hours on a plane – yet a place that offers markedly different attractions from the UAE. For four years, we’ve chosen Istanbul, for its architecture, for the delights of a Bosphorus cruise and, of course, for the shopping.

This year, we opted for something entirely different and went to Georgia. Once our friends realised that we weren't flying all that way across the Atlantic for a mere three or four days, their response was mainly one of curiosity. Nestled in the south-western Caucasus, this small country clearly has a long way to go in attracting tourists from the Emirates, despite direct flights from Sharjah and Dubai. That said, we were happy to find some other UAE citizens and expatriate residents in the hotel we had selected.

A quick internet check told us some of what to expect: mountains and river valleys and a n abundance of ancient castles, churches and monasteries, for Georgia is overwhelmingly Christian, the religion having arrived there in the 1st century AD. Indeed the Georgian alphabet is said to have been created in the 5th century for the purpose of translating the Bible into the Georgian language.

The unquestioned highlight of our short stay was a long taxi ride to a ski resort in the mountains where we spent much of New Year’s Day throwing snowballs in the gently falling snow and generally behaving, as a friend said when he saw the photographs, like a bunch of kids. It’s nice to do that sometimes; we should probably do it more often.

New Year’s Eve offered a different kind of attraction. With fireworks on sale in every street market, there was an absolute cacophony of sound as happy Georgians celebrated by setting off firecrackers from roads, parking lots, rooftops and balconies all over the capital city, Tbilisi. A far cry, indeed, from the organised and lavish displays to which we’re now accustomed in the UAE, yet something that we felt more effectively reflected the collective hopes for a happy 2015.

Although there was new construction in Tbilisi and the villages along the road that headed into the mountains, we were puzzled by the many abandoned buildings as well as others that were just unfinished shells. A major reason for that, we discovered, was the rate of emigration in search of work. It is the highest in the world. In 1992, a couple of years after Georgia regained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country had a population of 5.5 million. Today, it has fallen to around 4.4 million. Pockets of new buildings and of wealth exist but they are overshadowed by multiple signs of a struggling economy. “The government is trying to improve things,” one young Georgian told us, “but it might take 10 years.”

Did we enjoy the trip and would we go again? Yes and probably yes, though we might choose summer months when the mountains and valleys are green.

That would be doubly advantageous because we wouldn't have to worry about the weather in Abu Dhabi. On the way out, we and thousands of others were delayed by fog. On the way back, we arrived a couple of hours before Abu Dhabi airport was closed, again by fog, on Friday night. The consequent disruption from delays and flight cancellations extended into Monday morning. Why did that happen? Winter fogs in Abu Dhabi aren’t exactly unusual. Do we really have to wait until the opening of the new infield terminal before Abu Dhabi Airport gets the right equipment to allow it to operate in all weathers? As an acquaintance who spent 12 hours at Dublin Airport waiting for his flight back would, no doubt, agree, the cost to business and tourism must be enormous.

Happy New Year all the same!


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