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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tourists Throng Forbidden Zone

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SUKHUMI, Georgia ? Knocking back a shot of vodka, the sunburnt, big-bellied tourist in tiny swimming trunks turns on his bar stool and surveys the scene in front of him with satisfaction.

Gentle waters lap the pebbly shore, girls in string bikinis bask on wooden sunbeds, children splash happily in the shallows.

This is former Soviet Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which fought for its independence in a bitter 1993 war that left at least 10,000 people dead.

Georgian forces and some 250,000 Georgian civilians were driven out and Abkhazia declared itself a sovereign nation. But eight years on, it is still not recognized by any state.

Sanctions were imposed, trade links with northern neighbor Russia cut, and the republic's famous mandarin oranges tumbled unharvested from the trees.

Now Abkhazia is trying to rebuild its shattered economy using its most prized resource: a coastline of unspoiled, sub-tropical beaches sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.

Tempted by cut-price deals, Russian tourists are flocking back to the same resorts where Soviet Communist Party bosses once enjoyed their summer vacations.

"Where else am I going to go, Hawaii?" said one Muscovite taking an evening stroll along the water's edge.

Abkhazia's department of tourism said about 65,000 Russians came on vacation to the 200-kilometer strip in 2000, and the number this year is expected to be higher.

Under Russia's sanctions regime, Russian citizens are officially only allowed to travel to Abkhazia if they are visiting relatives. But border guards seem to turn a blind eye, and Abkhazian tourism officials are there to help busloads of sun-seekers cross the frontier.

"We have to help them cross the border. I cannot tell you the ways we do it, but we use unofficial ways to get them across," said Valery Ashuba, deputy head of the department of tourism.

The wait at the border can last for hours, but once across, tourists can take advantage of the cheapest hotels along the Black Sea coast.

There's also a rain forest to explore, spectacular underground caves and an ancient monastery.

The snappily named "17th Party Congress Resort" ? with sea views, a swimming pool, solarium and sporting activities ? offers full-board accommodation for $19 a night.

A 1,500-man Russian peacekeeping force is deployed in Abkhazia, and members are often joined by their families in summer.

"It's not like going abroad, everyone speaks Russian and we can buy the things we like," said Vera, the wife of a Russian soldier, relaxing under a parasol.

But despite the swelling numbers on the beaches, Abkhazia is not the place it was when Stalin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev built their holiday dachas here.

The capital, Sukhumi, is littered with ruins of buildings destroyed by war that the government can afford neither to rebuild nor pull down.

The buildings that remain ? once elegant, neo-classical residences painted in yellows and pinks ? are bullet-riddled and dilapidated. Some serve as offices of state with national flags hoisted above.

"We had a war that completely destroyed our economy and our infrastructure and traumatized the population," said Sergei Shamba, considered Abkhazia's foreign minister. "It left a deep scar."

Abkhazia's population is estimated at 150,000, and many people live in deep poverty.

White United Nations vehicles race along otherwise quiet streets, a constant reminder of how far the territory is from normality.

A contingent of UN military observers has been stationed in the territory since late 1993, and the threat of renewed violence still lingers.

Georgia has not relinquished its claim on the region and says the quarter of a million Georgians who fled must be free to return.

Pro-Georgian guerrilla groups, such as the "Forest Brothers" and "White Legionnaires," and an Abkhaz militia are blamed for ambushes and kidnappings. Stray landmines claim lives each year.

But that all seems far away from Sukhumi's beach, where some families return every summer.

The Russian sanatorium, with a disco and beachfront restaurants serving beer and mussels, is fully booked.

"We've been coming here for five years, said Lena, a blonde 18-year-old, on vacation with her parents and younger sister.

"At the beginning it felt strange and we were afraid, but now we feel safe."