Problems of Modern Tourism in Abkhazia.
View from the New Athos Monastery.
The report was read at a scientific and practical seminar of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Sukhum on 17 June, 2020.
Hierodeacon David (Sarsaniya)
abbot of the New Athos monastery
Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia
On 19 March 2020, for the first time in 26 years after the resumption of monastic life, the New Athos Monastery was closed for visitors and public services. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the external activity of our monastery over the past 3 months, which had been formed for the past decades. It should be noted that in the period from 1994 to 2007, the New Athos Monastery was visited mainly by believers and pilgrims from the Russian Federation and their amount was incomparably smaller than in the period from 2008 to 2019. In 2008, after the recognition of Abkhazia as an independent country by Russia, the popularity of the New Athos Monastery has significantly increased, it became one of the main cultural and historical centers in Abkhazia.
It is clear that tourism is an important business for our country. In the Soviet time, such places as the Lykhny church, a concert hall in the former patriarchal cathedral in Pitsunda, Psyrtskha resort in the buildings of the New Athos monastery were exploited in the field of local tourism. In the 20-30s of the last century the New Athos resort was founded on the territory of the New Athos Monastery. The New Athos resort developed over the following decades. After the liberation war of Abkhazian people in 1992-1993 our state was in blockade until 2008, but it was the time of the New Athos Monastery’s revival as a spiritual institution. In these new conditions, the importance of the monastery as a holy place, was revived, it became one of the Christian centers of the Caucasus and the South of Russia.
Nowadays we are dealing with a new phenomenon for us, as a mixture of tourism with visiting the holy places of Abkhazia, it should be clearly distinguished from religious pilgrimage. The current tourist excursion has got educational purposes, tourists get acquaintance with the history of Christianity in our country, see our shrines, church architecture, church painting and art. Such excursions are an integral part of any trip to Abkhazia.
At the same time, these services of tourist campaigns are not religious tourism. It is necessary to separate the concept of “pilgrimage” from “religious tourism”, pilgrimage is related to the spiritual life of a person. Religious tourism is the acquisition of new knowledge during an excursion trip to a monastery or temple.
Based on the experience of the New Athos Monastery in recent years, I would like to draw attention to the significant problems in the modern tourism business of Abkhazia.
First of all, there is a problem on the absence of standards for the time limits of the excursion, that is, how long should an excursion trip of a group of tourists accompanied by a guide last in Abkhazia? Unfortunately, most tour companies try to combine all possible places to visit in Abkhazia on the same day. As a rule, visiting New Athos, in particular the New Athos cave in the evening time, representatives of travel agencies also offer to visit the monastery. However, not everyone takes into account the fact that the New Athos Monastery is open for visitors at a specific time and it needs daily cleaning. Frequently guides ask us not close the monastery until 20:00, which is not always possible for us.
The next problem is the number of tourists visiting the cathedral church of St. Panteleimon. It is known that the cathedral church has unique wall paintings of the early XX century, made by St. Petersburg artists. The murals need to be preserved and currently they are actively destroyed, because of the external damage and the effects of temperature. It is also necessary to take into account the fact that a large amount of dust comes in with tourists, the dust settles on the walls of the cathedral church. In general, the cathedral church needs serious restoration work and the uncontrolled admission of large masses of visitors makes a great damage to the church. I also want to draw attention to the state of wall paintings of the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the village of Lykhny, dated back to XIII-XIV centuries. If measures on preservation of murals are not urgently taken soon, Abkhazia will forever lose this important monument of fine art of the Middle Ages.
Another problem is the condition of some tourists taken to the New Athos Monastery by some travel agencies. I already mentioned that one excursion trip travel agencies try to deliver tourists to all possible places, as well as they attend wine tasting halls. As a rule, a certain number of tourists are delivered to New Athos in a state of intoxication and being drunk they visit the monastery and the New Athos cave. Are the guides responsible for delivering drunk tourists to the holy place? Are there free aid stations throughout the whole route where tourists can tidy up themselves?
Another problem is the numerous commercial facilities, the so-called souvenir markets, which are placed near each cultural and historical site. In the autumn of 2013, I was informed by the former head of the administration of New Athos F.T. Dautia that, according to the decision of the former head of the state department for tourism of Abkhazia T. Lakerbaya, 40 commercial facilities would be set up along the path leading to the monastery to trade souvenirs. However, no products other than alcohol and food products were not sold there. And again I have the same question, who is responsible for this disgrace?
We can continue to list the problems of modern tourism but I would like to see the involvement of our people in cooperation and development of the popularity of interesting places in Abkhazia in a more cultural direction.
I think the Ministry of Tourism should pay attention to religious tourism as a special type of activity related to the provision of services for tourists who attend holy places. It is necessary to develop special routes for visiting churches and monasteries of Abkhazia, as well as prepare specialists at the Department of Tourism who can work in this field. This is important because religious tourism gives an opportunity to representatives of different religions to find out more not only about religion, but also about the historical, cultural values of the visited places. As I said above, pilgrimage is different from religious tourism. For the implementation of the pilgrimage, it is also necessary to create a specific infrastructure, pilgrimage hotels, refectory, introduction to the process of restoring churches and holy places, etc. But now we are not ready to accept pilgrims in this way. Although in Abkhazia there are “pilgrimage” services that do not have state accreditation, they host pilgrims and tourists, for example in the Gulrypsh region, the Elisaveta Orthodox pilgrimage center from the St. Elisabeth Monastery in Kaliningrad. To tell the truth there are questions of their commercial activities and the provision of services within the framework of the legislation of Abkhazia.
In summer, the New Athos Monastery is visited daily by 3,500 – 5,000 people, which highlights the special significance of this holy place. Perhaps the time has come when our tourism industry should reconsider its attitude and methods of exploitation of such a spiritual object, as the New Athos Monastery. Representatives of the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia are ready to provide scientific assistance in training specialists for the Ministry of Tourism in such a new direction as religious tourism.
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URL: http://www.science-education.ru/ru/article/view?id=16486 (16.06.2020).