South Caucasus seeks to get on the winter sports bandwagon

South Caucasus seeks to get on the winter sports bandwagon
The $2bn resort at Shahdag, Azerbaijan, opened in 2013.
By Carmen Valache in Lund December 6, 2016

With little over a week left until the slopes open, the South Caucasus is hard at work doing the last touch-ups to its brand new ski resorts. But while Georgia and Azerbaijan - and to a lesser degree Armenia - are striving to woo winter tourists with low prices and brand-new facilities, whether or not there will be enough skiers on the pistes this season remains to be seen.

Georgia boasts the most established ski destination in the Caucasus, including a state-of-the-art resort in Gudauri, in the north of the country. A relatively new resort that attracts adventurers interested in heli skiing, paragliding and off-piste skiing, Gudauri is located in the second largest volcanic peak in the Caucasus, Kazbegi, and, with 57km, has by far the longest series of runs in the region.

But the resort has a significant downside, which is that it is isolated in the mountains and there are few post-skiing activities. Furthermore, while its slope exceeds 1,500 metres, making it attractive to experienced skiers, the resort offers little for families.

Meanwhile, Bakuriani, the country's oldest ski resort dating back to the 1930s, attracts more locals and families, because it has more low-difficulty slopes and is located in the vicinity of Bakuriani municipality, offering a number of activities in the evening and the cozy atmosphere that most skiers seek at the end of the day.

But a number of privately operated resorts have sprung up in recent years, giving Bakuriani and Gudauri a run for their money. Foremost among them is Mestia, a resort located in the northern Caucasus that is known for its off-piste skiing opportunities, and Goderdzi in western Georgia, which doubles as a mineral spring resort. The two locations are new enough - Goderdze was only inaugurated last season - and, at 5km and 8 km respectively, have very short runs.

But their owners are looking to bank on the increase in the number of foreign tourists to the country in recent years - tourist arrivals were up by 2.5% y/y to 2.3mn in 2015 - by drawing Europeans away from the crowded slopes in the Alps and the Pyrenees, to the relatively uncharted peaks in the Caucasus. However, if statistical tourism data is anything to go by, they have their work cut out for them.

Georgia is largely a summer tourism destination, receiving three times more tourists during the months of July and August than in January and February. Furthermore, none of Georgia's six ski resorts ranked among its top 10 most visited destinations in 2015, according to the country's tourism agency.

That may perhaps explain why the Georgian government is frantically seeking to promote winter sports in the country. In November, the state-run Mountain Development Corporation contracted France's Des Alpes ski resort management company to help out with marketing, slope management and rescue activities at Bakuriani and Gudauri. Meanwhile, tourism agency GNTA reached an agreement with the UN's World Tourism Organisation to market the country as a ski destination by hosting a Eurasian ski resort conference in Tbilisi in April.

Monica Ellena, a bne IntelliNews contributor, believes that poor safety on the slopes will continue to affect Georgia's image as a ski destination. "Georgians ski just like they drive - with little regard for safety," she explains. And if road safety is the bar for safety on the slopes, it is a low bar indeed.

Armenia sees even fewer foreign winter tourists than Azerbaijan and Georgia, its main ski resorts of Tsankhhadzor and Jermuk catering mainly to a few locals and Russian skiers. At less than €20 for a day pass and €12 per one-hour instruction class, the resort is indeed a bargain, if only it were better known outside of the country.

Neighbouring Azerbaijan is relatively new to skiing, lacking Georgia's decade-long history of the sport.  Azerbaijanis' interest in the winter sport only took off with the inauguration of a small resort at Shahdag, in the northern Qusar region, in 2013.

A $2bn investment, the resort has so far been a source of curiosity for locals, many of whom would drive for three hours from the capital city of Baku at the weekends just to sit in the cafes at the base of the mountain and watch skiers pass them by. But a few local dare-devils - and some of the expatriate workers based out of Baku and their families - have taken to the sport, which is one of the few ways to spend an active weekend during the cold Azerbaijani winter.

When this reporter visited the resort some two years ago, she found the slopes to be relatively empty and the cafes full. The resort is a good place for beginners, offers relatively affordable prices for equipment and ski rentals, but only has four slopes corresponding to the four difficulty levels, therefore could prove boring for experienced skiers.

A newer development, the Tufandag resort in the Gabala region is still under construction. A single (blue) slope covered with artificial snow and a lift still under construction were the only indications that the place was to become a ski resort last season, but Baku has grander plans for the resorts this year. In October, the resort's management reported that it had experienced increased pressure from weekend tourists based out of Baku to open the season early, but that it would only offer spa services until mid-December, when the slopes are scheduled to open.