Charm Alert! Georgia Welcomes Russian Tourists!

Posted October 10th, 2012 at 9:17 pm (UTC+0)

For Russians, Georgia is friendly, familiar, foreign, yet near. Almost all movies are dubbed into Georgian VOA Photo: James Brooke

Nervousness was in the air the other afternoon when my S7 Airbus, packed with Russian tourists, touched down at Tbilisi’s international airport.

The tourists walked down a sparkling glass corridor to a terminal that Russian bombs narrowly missed four years earlier during the war with Georgia. They meekly lined up in the no-visa line at passport control.

Crisply uniformed Georgian immigration officers sitting in glass booths carefully inspected each red passport, embossed in gold with the double-headed eagle. Each border control officer then reached under his desk and, with a practiced move, returned every passport with an unexpected object. It was a 200-milliliter bottle of red wine, packed in a crimson gift box and stamped: “Welcome to the Land of 8,000 Vintages.”

“Welcome to Georgia!” the officers repeated in Russian, offering unrehearsed, centuries-old Georgian smiles.

Despite the warnings of the Kremlin nanny state, Russian tourism to Georgia is booming.

Citibank Russia estimates that Russians will splurge and spend $50 billion on foreign trips in 2012. International travel out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is up 19 percent this year. The increase is so steep that Russian airlines are debating whether to hire 1,000 foreign pilots to fly the extra Airbuses and Boeings required to meet the demand.

As Russia’s flush middle class scours the world for new destinations, many think of an old favorite close to home: Georgia. In Soviet times, Georgia received 3 million tourists each year.

Tourists explore the ancient settlement of Shatili, some 140 km north of Tbilisi. The historic village, made up of a unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings of stone and mortar, lies near the border with Chechnya (Russia) and has become a popular tourist destination. Photo: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

But today, many Russians think twice before venturing south.

In Moscow and Tbilisi, police guard the long-shuttered, empty embassies of Georgia and Russia. Georgia broke off relations with Russia in August 2008, shortly after losing a five-day war with Russia. Four years later, about 7,000 Russian soldiers are garrisoned in two secessionist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.

On the Georgian side, the war wounds are still raw. About 400 Georgian civilians and soldiers were killed and 1,700 were wounded, and about 15,000 new internally displaced people are still living in refugee villages.

On the Russian side, Kremlin-controlled television has fed the population a steady diet of scary stories about Georgia. In May, 41 percent of Russian respondents to a Levada poll said the biggest security threat to Russia is Georgia, a nation of only 4.5 million people. (That percentage roughly corresponds to the portion of Russians who get most of their news from state-controlled television — a medium that opposition leader Alexei Navalny derides as “the zombie box.”)

Not Kremlin-approved tourism: The Soviet Occupation Museum spells out some of the human costs of 70 years of Soviet rule of this nation of 4.5 million people: 80,000 Georgians shot by secret police, 400,000 sent to Gulag labor camps, and 400,000 dead in World War II. When, I visited the museum, one block down from Freedom Square (ex-Lenin Square), the only visitors were Russian families. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In late February, Georgian authorities took the pragmatic step of trying to thaw the ice by waiving visa requirements for Russians. The Kremlin refused to reciprocate. Instead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich advised Russians not to travel to Georgia.

“A large number of Russian nationals would automatically be subject to prosecution on entry into the country,” Lukashevich warned in March, a time when Russians were planning their summer vacations. “Since Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia, we have extremely limited resources for the consular and legal defense of our fellow citizens who have found themselves in trouble in Georgia.”

Defying official warnings, Russian tourist arrivals have jumped by 55 percent. Half a million Russians are expected to visit Georgia this year. S7, which restored service last year between Moscow and Tbilisi, started direct flights in June between Moscow and the Georgian resort town of Batumi. This month, the airline starts direct charter flights between Moscow and Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city. Since there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, these are technically charter flights.

“This is the first year we saw Russian tourists everywhere,” said Larry Sheets, an American who has lived on and off in Tbilisi for the last 20 years. “We saw groups in Tbilisi being led around by tour guides, out in the countryside. It was an amazing amount.”

This year, Russians have explored Tbilisi’s medieval Old Town and gone by bus on wine-tasting tours in the countryside. This winter, they are to pack the chairlifts in Caucasus mountain resorts once used as training grounds for Soviet Olympic skiers. Kazbegi, a new Georgian casino resort built just across the border from Russia, is a big attraction for those who live under varying degrees of Shariah in the North Caucasus.

Two weeks ago, my Voice of America colleague Vadim Massalsky drove with a carload of friends from Krasnodar, Russia to Tbilisi, and then on to eastern Georgia. During his 500-kilometer drive through Georgia in a car with Russian license plates, he was never stopped by Georgian traffic police.

After a few toasts, one table at Pheasant’s Tears broke into songs from Georgia’s ancient polyphonous tradition. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The most alarming aspect of the road trip, he wrote in his blog, were the constant calls from worried friends back home in southern Russia.

“Yes, it is just awful!” he recalled one traveling companion, Pavel Kazachenok, a Volgograd lawyer, shouting into his mobile phone. “Yesterday, they tortured us all night long with wine and barbecues. And today, Merab and Valiko have threatened us that the torture will continue.”

Meanwhile in Moscow, Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief health inspector, met Monday with Georgian winemakers to discuss ending Russia’s six-year embargo on Georgian wines. The embargo violates the rules of the World Trade Organization, which Russia joined in August.

Banned in St. Petersburg, welcomed in San Francisco. Lisa Costa, manager of The Punchdown, an organic winery in Oakland, California, tastes an amber wine from Pheasant’s Tears winery in Sighnaghi, Georgia. While some limited label wines like Pheasant’s Tears win premium prices in the United States, neighboring Russia bans imports of all Georgian wines for ‘health’ reasons. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The surge of Russian tourists into Georgia poses two problems for the Kremlin. First, it shows that a large segment of Russians, generally the most affluent and most educated, increasingly ignore the Kremlin’s xenophobic worldview.

Second, Russian tourists are expected to join the chorus for normalizing Russia’s relations with Georgia. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry, lampooned soft power as sissy power.

“Smart power and soft power are fine words that make sense, but real power — power to be reckoned with — is the physical power of knowing that you can strike with an iron fist,” he said.

The bedroom in the Tbilisi apartment I rented came with this unique bedside lamp. VOA Photo: James Brooke

But Georgia, only too recently on the receiving end of Moscow’s iron fist, has now set a goal of welcoming 5 million Russian tourists by 2020 — more than one Russian for every Georgian.

If Georgia succeeds in seducing millions of Russian tourists every year with fine wines, rich meals and warm hospitality, this tourism campaign could end up subverting the Kremlin’s cold war in the hot Caucasus.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

2 responses to “Charm Alert! Georgia Welcomes Russian Tourists!”

  1. AT says:

    Russia and Georgia share hundreds of years of common history. In twenty years politicians managed to destroy good relations and good memories. Positive things wil come but efforts are needed from both sides.

  2. Les Miles says:

    Russian soft power on display. As western countries curtail ther aid to Georgia due to financial crisis, Gerogia has no choice but to to look to Russia for help. Let’s hope that the need for Russian aid has cured Georgia’s “Russian spies”” mania.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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