The road from Russia into Abkhazia makes a turn a few kilometers after the border and follows the mountains in a southeast direction towards Gagra. The. views from the road are spectacular. On the left are the steep mountainsides of the Caucasus and to the right the traveler can see many kilometers to sea and down the coastline to Gagra. After about 20 minutes, the road descends into “Old Gagra” where the town fills the narrow gap between the mountains and the sea. Gagra has many rustic guest homes, several modest hotels and a few outdated Soviet-era resorts. Last year, the Hotel Alex opened; It is the best property in northwest Abkhazia and perhaps the entire country. It also sets the standards for service and amenities for all of Abkhazia. No other hotel can boast a seaside pool, a spa, up-to-date designer rooms, a restaurant and bowling alley, not to mention western-level service.
In December, I spent time with Ruzanna Malkhasyan, who is a manager at the Hotel. I was impressed that day because the staff called her as soon as I entered the hotel and within minutes she arrived, despite the fact it was an off day for her. When I asked Ruzanna about this, she laughed and told me that while working to build the hotel’s reputation and its expanding list of services, there is little free time, so whenever the chance to promote the hotel appears she wants to capitalize.
Ruzanna told me about the development of the hotel, which is owned by Russian investor Alexander Lebedev. She said that the hotel opened in April of 2010 and that the building process took less than a year. This is quite rapid by local standards, but the quality has apparently not suffered. The structure sits just off the beach and has 80 rooms, a spa and a bar/ restaurant in 5 stories. Most rooms have unobstructed views of both the spectacular mountains and glassy seas. The modern design, colors and brightly lit reception area, with its service-oriented and English speaking staff, are a contrast to other properties in the area, but a sure sign of much more hotel development on the way to Abkhazia. The hotel also has a beautiful pool area, a bowling alley and, on its extensive beach front, another restaurant and snack bar are being opened. Weddings, parties and conferences are held here because of the level of service and the attractive, comfortable rooms. The spa is often busy, with a sauna and beauty and skin treatments that are not available in other hotels in Abkhazia.
I have visited the Alex a number of times and it is always busy. During the summer peak season, occupancy runs very close to 100% and even during the winter months, the hotel is usually about 50% occupied. Abkhazia and the Hotel Alex offer a beautiful and less expensive alternative to Russians for corporate outings, especially when most of Russia is blanketed in cold and snow. For example, on a visit last fall, I saw a conference of executives from Renault auto dealerships in Russia.
Ruzanna was recruited to work for the Alex because of her unique background. She was born in Gagra, but her family left because of the conflict caused by Georgia’s invasion in 1992. They moved to Saint Petersburg,where Ruzanna eventually studied at the Saint Petersburg Technical College of Management and Commerce and received a degree in international economics and tourism, specializing in hotel management. Ruzanna worked during her University days and after graduating, took a position with Limak Group in Turkey, where she started out as a waitress at the Cornelia Resort Golf and Spa, but quickly rose to Assistant Guest Relations Manager. When her present employers heard of her desire to return to Abkhazia for family reasons, they quickly found a role for her in the Alex. Ruzanna is Reception Manager at the Alex and she also works in the sales department and is very involved in the planning process with Hotel Manager Vyacheslav Chernyshev as the property has developed its bowling alley, bars and restaurants. Her multi-disciplinary education and work experience have come in handy with all of the hats she wears at the Alex.
Ruzanna and I walked to the new Hemingway Bar during my visit in December and she showed me the Hotel’s plans for expanding to fill the service gap in Abkhazia. I have been telling investors for several years that Abkhazia is ripe for hotel development because of its unique climate, spectacular coastline and proximity both to an Olympic city (Sochi) and to the large Russian market. The Hotel Alex is proof positive that the model of providing high quality rooms and service will attract guests to Abkhazia. The Hotel is already establishing a reputation as a “cool” weekend getaway for Sochisiders and a destination for those from colder climes who wish to fly to Sochi, take a quick trip across the border and relax in subtropical comfort.
Ruzanna is emblematic of a new generation of energetic Abkhaz professionals who have acquired an education and linguistic skills. They see those tools as a springboard for personal opportunity and to help their country rise from impoverishment to the Black Sea’s most unique and beautiful destination.
Ruzanna Malkhasyan (right) and Hotel Alex employee
The Hotel Alex sits at 1 Zvanba Ulitsa in Gagra. Winter rates start at 2,200 rubles for a standard room, 4,800 rubles for a suite, with a deluxe suite priced at 5,800. Summer rates are higher. Readers may contact me for further information.