Growing numbers of tourists are holidaying in this small South Caucasus republic, which until recently featured little in mainstream travel guides. The country’s change of fortunes has in large part been driven by a surprising degree of international media coverage, which frequently and justly points to its scenery, cuisine and culture as reasons to visit. By contrast, neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan receive little attention – and, when they do, are rarely portrayed in the most positive light.
Some six million international travellers visited Georgia last year. By October of this year the figure had already been surpassed. On a trip to Tbilisi in September, the country’s growing popularity was much in evidence. In the capital’s old town, the amount of French, German and Polish I overheard bore out these impressive numbers, with Georgia seemingly ready for tourism in a way it was not when I was here six years ago.
The most striking difference between then and now was the reappearance of Russian tourists. In 2010, just two years after the August War between Russia and Georgia, I was barely aware of any – hardly surprising so soon after the conflict. The return of the Russians reflects improved ties and signals the opening up of Georgia’s most natural tourist market.
In early August, an unprecedented flow of Russian tourists to Georgia caused long vehicle tailbacks on the border, with some 14,000 people crossing in one day. I met a group of visitors who had driven down from Tula in central Russia for a week long break, opting for Georgia instead of Turkey. They said they had experienced little in the way of anti-Russian feeling in Georgia and mentioned how easy they had found getting about the country.
In Russia some are doing their bit to promote Georgian tourism. The state-owned travel company Moya Planeta was last year reported to be posting lists of Georgia travel hacks, while independent fashion brands have used the country’s stunning landscape and Tbilisi’s old town as backdrops for shoots.
Of course the return of Russian tourists can be a sensitive subject, particularly amongst the young who, unlike some of their parents’ generation, have little nostalgia for a shared Soviet past. One of the opposition United National Movement’s shrillest criticisms of the current Georgian Dream government has been its perceived “pro-Russianness”. The suggestion is that it is letting Russian influence increase in the country – conveyed in rather unflattering graffiti daubed on walls and buildings around the city. The claim is almost certainly untrue, if only because the ruling party remains an essentially amorphous ideological grouping. While it has no clearly articulated policy towards Moscow, it is clearly more flexible than former president Mikheil Saakashvili whose term was characterised by sabre-rattling against Georgia’s largest potential export market.
To date Georgia has understandably neglected its Russophone past, investing heavily in the promotion of English as the country seeks to position itself very firmly in the western cultural and political camp. But now the government is ready to admit that a trilingual future may stand the country in better stead.
In 2011 English language became a mandatory subject in Georgian schools. A large-scale English language teaching programme, Teach and Learn with Georgia, was introduced to considerable fanfare, with native English-language teachers hired to deliver the curriculum. It certainly has been a success and has since expanded to include the teaching of German and French. Spend any time in Tbilisi and the impact of the programme is clear: the level of English among people in their twenties is impressive.. The reverse is the case with older generations who are logically much more comfortable in Russian.
In April Georgia’s President Georgy Margvelashvili discussed the use of Russian language. He pointed out that it was vital as a means of communication with Abkhazians and Ossetians, residents of the country’s two breakaway territories, covering a fifth of the republic. The authorities in both these entities are close to Moscow which has recognised them as independent states. If Tbilisi is ever to reintegrate them, it will not only need to be on better terms with Moscow but also reach out to their populations. Greater use of Russian would also be appreciated by Armenians and Azerbaijanis – Georgia’s other significant Russophone minorities.
Notwithstanding Russia’s rediscovery of its southern neighbour and Georgia’s efforts to revive the Russian language, tensions remain between the two countries – not least over the breakaway territories. Even tourism is not immune. The influx of Russian visitors has been helped by Tbilisi’s relaxation of visa restrictions. But, tellingly, this has not been reciprocated.