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Black Sea city aims to be 'Las Vegas of the Caucasus'

By Diana Magnay, CNN
June 11, 2012 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Batumi is Georgian city on coast of the Black Sea
  • Investment in tourism and real estate is transforming the city
  • Casinos add an extra lure for potential tourists
  • Georgia's president called it "one of the darkest places in the world" after end of USSR

Editor's note: CNN's Eye On series is visiting Georgia. Read and watch reports from the country online and on TV until June 24.

(CNN) -- By night the skyline of Batumi shines with illuminated buildings, showing a side of the Georgian city it wishes the whole world to see.

But the bright lights it hopes will attract international tourists are quite different from what the town was not long ago.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the city was "one of the darkest places in the world", according to Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili.

"(It was) one of the worst run, run by a local warlord... with all these SUVs and people running around with Kalashnikovs and dark glasses," he said.

Now, rather than gunshots, a frenzy of construction echoes through the city with new hotels and apartment blocks rising up among the low-rise, old buildings.

Donald Trump is one of the latest high-profile investors to back the rejuvenation of the city with plans for a new Trump residential tower.

Batumi is the focus of Georgia's effort to attract 4 million visitors to the country this year, almost as many as the country's entire population.

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For now it is mostly visitors from the Caucasus region and Turkey, though Russian tourists are returning since Georgia scrapped their visa requirement last year. Gambling is legal, which provides another lure to potential tourists.

"They come here to combine leisure and their holiday with gambling. So lots of Turkish, lots of Chinese come here not only during the summer but also the winter to just have fun," said Maia Sidamonidze, chairwoman of Georgia's Department of Tourism, who added she would like the city to aim high and become a Las Vegas of the Caucasus.

Many residents in Batumi are thrilled at the new lease of life their city is getting and the new jobs the investment is bringing.

But some of the city's older generation worry that the changes taking place in the city are not going to be for their benefit.

"The future and present of this country is for young people who studied, who know English; everything is for them" said Nodar Khinigadze, who has been unable to find employment since losing his job in shipping years ago.

"It is good that they have jobs but for people like me who trained during Soviet times, it is hard to find our place."

CNN's Eye On series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports.

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