This historical town, important for its proximity to the Bodbe Monastery, is surrounded by an 18th century fortress built to protect the area from Dagestani tribesmen.
The road from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi (located close to the border with Azerbaijan) cuts through eastern Georgia in an almost straight horizontal line. In the summer, food stands run by the local farmers line both sides of the street, ornamented with fruit, vegetables and rows upon rows of homemade 'churchkhela'. .
At a height of 790 meters above sea level, overlooking the Alzani valley, one of the most fertile grounds in Georgia, lies the old town of Sighnaghi. .
In the wake of the Russian embargo on Georgian food exports, especially wine, the grapes of the Kakheti region – once the pride of local growers – are giving way to other agricultural products. As the head of the district's Public Register office told us:
'Fish farms are the new thing: 10 of these projects are underway at the moment, with about a total of 1,000 hectares planned to be turned into fish farms. It is more profitable than wheat or wine. It is about 5 times more profitable than wheat in fact…'
Tourism has recently become the district's new cash crop. In 2005 Sakaashvili determined that the region had the potential to draw in tourism and, tapping into the state budget, commissioned a series of renovation projects in the town. The work started in April 2007. A year later it was almost completed. The initial phase was said to cost about € 10 million; another ca. € 6 million was allocated for the second phase. The renovation projects, from what we saw, included painting the houses in the city centre, installing style-matching windows and doors, paving the streets with cobblestones, replacing the façade of the municipal building, and growing small flower-filled gardens all over town.
As new hotels and restaurants sprung up, Sighnaghi began to draw 5,000 to 10,000 tourists every weekend. According to the town mayor, Sighnaghi – once on the verge of decay – had been void of tourists until a year ago.
Sighnaghi street. Photo: ESI
Tourism has picked up in Georgia over the last few years. Peter Nasmyth recalls a conversation with a tour agency representative who told him – back in 1997 – that in 1989 1.8 million tourists visited Georgia, of which about 280,000 came from outside the Soviet Union. In 1997 Georgia received only 1,500 foreign tourists.
Leaving the newly reconstructed town and driving down to the villages, the picture changes quite a lot, however. The village of Jugani, around 7-8 kilometres from Sighnaghi, covers an area of 3800 hectares, home to3200 people. Where in 1991-92 there were 1450 households, there are now only 1214. Only 1130 houses are inhabited. Of the families who've left, most have migrated to the capital, Tbilisi. Most of the migrants are young working people.
Agricultural production in the village relies on wheat, while vineyards occupy a smaller area. Most households have small plots of land (1.25 ha), with only about 5% of households owning more than 20-30 ha.
The employment rate in Jugani is extremely low; over 300 people live below the poverty line and qualify for social assistance. In addition, there are 950 pensioners. The population of the village is aging rapidly: there are only 330 schoolchildren in the village.