The Georgian government announced that domestic tourism can resume from 15 June while borders could open to foreign tourists as early as 1 July.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia stated earlier this month that “Georgia will resume domestic tourism starting June 15 and will receive international tourists starting July 1”, while budget airlines Ryanair and Wizz Air will resume flights from select countries across the region, including the Baltics, Hungary, Israel and other destinations currently under negotiation.
Before Georgia locked down due to coronavirus, tourism numbers peaked at a high of over nine million during 2019. Anna Deviata, the founder of Tbilisi Hack Free Tours, told Lonely Planet that tourists were drawn to Georgia by a winning offering of “great natural food, beautiful mountains, ancient cities with rich culture and history, a huge variety of wines and the whole wine-making and wine drinking tradition itself, friendly prices and of course incredibly hospitable people”.
The move to open the country’s borders has been welcomed by local tour companies, who saw bookings plummet from a high, literally overnight. Grigoli Paghava, the owner of Budget Georgia, says that “we had exponential success at the start of March 2020. We’ve never had so many bookings at this time of year before, but from 17 March everything was changed. New booking requests stopped within two days. This was very quick, 100 to 0”.
Georgia’s rapid lockdown could well have proven successful. So far, the small Caucasus nation has only officially recorded 735 cases of infection and 12 deaths in a population nearing four million people.
Economy Minister Natia Turnava hopes to brand Georgia as a safe destination on the back of the country’s apparent COVID-19 successes, announcing at a recent press conference that: “before the world knew us as a country with an ancient hospitality tradition, now the world will recognise us as a safe country destination. We need to use the new competitive advantage that our country has acquired in the fight against the pandemic”.
Travellers looking to escape the rest of the world could find ample opportunity for respite from the worldwide pandemic in Georgia’s already isolated mountains. Grigoli Paghava of Budget Georgia says positively that “social distancing is better in the remote areas and mountains, though the risk is still everywhere”. His tour company already have bookings locked in as early as 7 July, and he believes that all places in Georgia will be safe for travelling by July.
The Georgian mountains have emerged as a top hiking destination in summer, but remote communities in expanding tourism hubs such as Svaneti and Tusheti remain cut off from the world for much of the year, given their extreme altitude and fierce snowstorms.
While they could be the perfect place for an isolated holiday this coming summer, the re-opening of Georgia’s tourism industry will need to ensure that rural communities and those working in the tourism sector can be protected from further outbreaks of COVID-19.
Levan Giorgadze, the founder of Tbilisi Free Walking Tours, has social distancing measures planned for when he resumes walking tours of the capital. “Our government and health care workers are doing their best to make our country safe and open the borders as soon as possible. For safety, we are going to have several restrictions, including having only 10-15 people in each tour, using microphones when needed, visitors using face masks, and keeping a safe distance from one another”.
Giorgadze is also hopeful that COVID-19 will prove to be a temporary blip in Georgia’s long term tourist growth: “I think the pandemic was a short break for Georgia. From next year, I expect things to get better. Georgia has the ability to become one of the best destinations in eastern Europe. Georgia positions itself as the place of alternative tourism where you can find something new, diverse, somewhat familiar but still unknown, and all this at a low price!”