Georgia’s plans to rejuvenate tourism
Georgia hopes to start welcoming tourists into the country again beginning this summer. From June 15, hotels and other tourist facilities will be reopened in Georgia for domestic tourists. Starting July 1, the country will receive its first foreign tourists of the season.
This is the Georgian government’s plan to become the “first country in the world” to reopen for tourism after the COVID-19 crisis. How realistic is this plan, and is Georgia ready for the beginning of tourist season this summer?
What the government plans to do
The experience that Georgia has already gained quarantining people in hotels and maintaining them during the crisis will help the country rapidly restore the tourist industry, says Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia.
The Georgian government intends to offer tourists resorts that are “safe” from coronavirus, which could be at Tskhaltubo, Gudauri, Sairme, Abastumani, Borjomi and others.
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The prime minister announced that the government will begin negotiations with various countries to create “safe corridors” to attract tourists. The process of testing tourists for COVID-19 upon entering the country should only last one hour.
On May 18, the Prime Minister instructed Georgian ambassadors abroad to promote the image of Georgia as a safe country which was successful in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
JAMnews turned to the Georgian National Tourism Board to find out the details of the plan. We were interested in exactly what measures are being taken to start accepting tourists on July 1, what new rules guests entering the country will follow, and what safety standards will be introduced. As we were told by the administration, the plan is still being developed, the details of which will become clear in the near future.
The tourism sector in Georgia has grown rapidly in recent years and has become one of the most important components of the Georgian economy. In 2018, the share of tourism in the country’s GDP amounted to 7.6 percent.
Last year, 9.3 million foreign visitors arrived in Georgia (2.5 times more than its population)—a record high since the fall of the USSR.
The government has been providing assistance to the tourism sector for many years. However, the pandemic reduced tourism in the country to almost nothing.
JAMnews spoke with Maya Sidamonidze, former head of the National Tourism Administration who is now managing partner of the Terrace Hotel, about how realistic it is to expect foreign tourists from July 1, and how the crisis will affect the tourism industry.
“I don’t think that Georgia will return to the same levels of international tourism and growth as it had before within the next two years.
Therefore, it would be wrong to create the expectation in the private sector that from July 1, life will go back to normal.
The second problem that I see is the change in the consumer behavior of tourists themselves. We know that there will be a lot of sanitary instructions and rules, and because of these procedures, travel in the next few months will change drastically, and the journey will become longer and less comfortable.
I would say that starting July 1, we will probably begin to develop the tourism industry again. We will face serious problems, but new opportunities will appear. We’ll be able to talk about new markets and new sectors, because consumer behavior will change, and in the process of this change, we will be able to see new opportunities,” Maya Sidamonidze said in an interview.
The future of tourism – an expensive rest behind railings?
The Georgian government has announced the creation of the so-called “green zones”—closed areas free of coronavirus. And this means they are clearly not counting on budget tourism.
Maya Sidamonidze believes that as a result of a pandemic, the purchasing power of tourists in the world will decrease, but the demand for premium products may increase. Therefore, travel in the next few years may change completely: instead of chatting with local residents and getting a taste for the local flavor, many travelers will prefer, relatively speaking, to “rest behind railings.”
“These ‘green zones’ and the isolated environments may become a priority for consumers, so that they can feel safe,” Sidamonidze said.
In this regard, resorts in the regions of Georgia will benefit, but it will be difficult for hotels in Tbilisi to attract tourists.
At the same time, Sidamonidze believes that the pandemic may play into the hands of apartment owners who rent through the Airbnb, for example, as many travelers will probably prefer isolated apartments and apartments to heavily-populated hotels.
Where will the first tourists go?
The government believes that the first people to start visiting the country again will be those from nearby countries who can reach Georgia by car. At the same time, the authorities say they currently in talks with airlines to resume flights. But it is still unknown which borders Georgia will open first. This will depend on how the pandemic situation develops in these countries.
Maya Sidamonidze doubts that tourists will start flying into the country immediately after July 1. As for opening land borders, the expert recommends that the government “prioritize.”
Georgia expects Russian tourists too, says Georgian Minister of Economics Natia Turnava. 1,400,000 Russians visited in 2018, accounting for 23 percent of all the foreign tourists in Georgia. Due to the political crisis in the country and the ban on flights to Georgia introduced by the Russian authorities, the number decreased in 2019, but only by five percent.
However, Maya Sidamonidze draws attention to the fact that Russia is now second in the world in terms of coronavirus cases, and the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. Opening the land borders with Russia would threaten Georgian security.
“I believe that even if there was no virus, the Russian market is still unstable. It’s there today, but tomorrow it may not be. This can always be used for political leverage and manipulation. Therefore, I believe that it is not worth making such statements and betting on such an unstable market, because in doing so, we again create erroneous expectations for the business and private sectors,” said Maya Sidamonidze.
The government has announced a series of measures to help entrepreneurs in the tourism industry. They will be exempted from property tax for 2020, and will also be granted a deferral of income tax until the end of the year. In addition, the state will partially pay their bank interest on loans, as well as provide soft loans.
Are these measures enough? Sidamonidze believes that the most important issue for entrepreneurs is finding a plan that will protect them from bankruptcy. And their main problem is bank debt. In her opinion, this problem is what international assistance should be directed towards.
“On the other hand, steps must be taken to attract tourists. One such action is resuming flights, but it is very important that we begin this process now, and that new sanitary rules are announced as soon as possible. Because if we say that tourism should resume on July 1, it is important to have time to prepare appropriately.
Secondly, now we must begin actively selling tickets, negotiating with airlines and entering new markets, because today we may encounter unique opportunities that we did not have before and which may not appear in the coming years,” says Sidamonidze.