Issue 5, 2011. October-November

   

TOURISM: GOVERNMENT PAVES THE WAY, PRIVATE INITIATIVE MUST FOLLOW

Georgia has come a long way to recapture its reputation as a tourism destination. With new infrastructure, big events and fresh destinations, the country is positioning itself to compete with Turkey and other regional holiday spots. Now entrepreneurs and businesses need to catch up.

Paul Rimple

The new dolphin show in Batumi


Tourism in Georgia is generally traced back to when Jason and the Argonauts traipsed across Colchis, yet for practical purposes we can say modern tourism took root in Georgia during Soviet times when, for the majority, traveling beyond the Iron Curtain was not an option, and poor service was not an issue.

By 2001, ten years after the fall of the USSR, the Georgian tourist industry should have improved, but in fact it regressed to a condition more closely resembling that of Jason's era. Batumi was an utterly corrupt, gritty little port town; Svaneti was the most likely place to get robbed and Tbilisi was adorned with 50 billboards advertising a kidnapped businessman. If there was a tourist attraction in Georgia at this time, it was crime.

Fast forward ten years and we see nothing short of a miracle occurring in Georgia. Batumi is a Riviera in the making; Svaneti welcomes visitors in guesthouses and Tbilisi is a legitimate business center. While no one doubts this sudden metamorphosis from Midnight Express to Casino Royale is an exemplary undertaking, there is an across the board understanding that before Georgia can be the major global tourist destination it aims to be, a lot of work still needs to be done in very basic areas.

Numbers are one way of revealing how far Georgia has come this past decade. In 2001, 302,215 international visitors entered Georgia. Today, that number has risen to 1.79 million and is expected to reach 2 million by the end of the year, despite a global economic crisis and the fallout from the 2008 war with Russia. While these numbers don't reflect the actual amount of tourists, their presence fully booked the major hotels in Tbilisi and Batumi this summer. For the government, this is a sign there is a demand for more luxury hotels. However, industry professionals are saying Georgia needs to provide more mid-range hotels and improve the services of existing ones, while the Georgian National Tourism Agency underlines there is a shortage of accommodation across Georgia.

"There are enough big hotels in Tbilisi. Maybe after three or four years there will be room for more. The market is still developing," says Atakan Turhan, General Manager of Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel in Tbilisi. "As for Batumi, it's too early to say," he adds.

Mamuka Kelauradze, tourist manager for Levon Travel says there are not enough 3 to 4 star hotels in Batumi and complains that prices are high and services poor. "There is a big problem with service. Too often, they give you one price and then change it after booking without notice - not the chain hotels, but the small ones," he says.

Kelauradze claims the problem is common wherever private businesses operate, such as in Svaneti, where guesthouses, which were fully booked this season, are the principal accommodation providers.

"We booked rooms for our clients at one guesthouse. We even called one hour before we arrived to confirm and when we got there, they told us, "you have no room." "

Chicanery is universally acknowledged as a bad business practice and reflects one of the biggest obstacles for tourist development in Georgia. The concept "it's bad for business" does not yet compute; it's a mindset that can only be exorcised through education.

Typically, people expect the government to be responsible for educating the private sector, when in reality it is the private sector that needs to step up and take advantage of the opportunities the government has made available in the tourism field, including education. So far there are two private institutions that specialize in tourism and hotel management - Icarus and Tishom. These alone are not enough to accommodate the rapidly growing need for professionals in the service industry. Moreover, institutions do not address the problems encountered in the regions, which are becoming increasingly popular travel destinations.

Deputy Chairman of the Georgian National Tourism Agency, Beqa Jakeli, says the government has been supporting short-term training sessions in Kakheti, Sighnaghi, Mestia and Tusheti, to improve administrative concepts for guesthouse owners, including two-month English courses to provide locals with basic English skills. Hospitality workshops sound pretty ludicrous in a country renowned for its hospitality, but when a host becomes a hotelier they often need to learn how to assume the role, but the lessons don't stop there.

When the government revamped Sighnaghi into the "city of love" locals immediately opened guesthouses and restaurants, but tourists need more than a place to eat and sleep from a tourist destination. Sightseeing is limited and if locals want people to stay for more than a day, they need to create a reason to come. The government tries to help by providing free buses from Tbilisi and organizing events on the weekends, but Sighnaghi's huge potential is being overlooked and government sponsored events can be way off target.

"I went to Sighnaghi for the weekend and there was some live music - way too loud. There was no harmony with the surroundings. You look around and expect tradition, not loud music," recalls Atakan Turhan.

Much of the problem could be resolved if there was more coordination between the government and the private sector, notes Ia Tabagari, Chairman of the Georgian Incoming Tour Operators' Association. Many people have the private resources but not the know-how to think out of the box. Although the government has rebuilt the infrastructure, she feels it could do more by attracting the private sector. For example, inviting national groups to perform is a great idea, but why do that when there aren't enough places to sleep? "People are keen to learn how to exploit what they have, but the private sector can't do much without help from the government," she says.

"The big opportunity tourism provides is being missed," says hotelier and entrepreneur Betsy Haskell, who has spent nearly 20 years in Georgia doing business. She explains that part of the reason we see a lack of development is that people in Georgia have a particular aversion to taking risks in investments. Additionally, there exists an inherent trend in short term thinking. The tourist season is three months long and hotel investors want a return in three years, which makes things expensive. "People don't think in five to seven year terms." she says. "There's no business savvy."

In Batumi, tour operators say increasing prices have driven Georgians to Turkey where one week all-inclusive package deals can be found for $400. The Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry report there were over 101,000 Georgian tourists this year - a growth of 4.18%.

Nugzar Davitadze owns a guesthouse in Kvariati, a Georgian beach-side community near the Turkish border, where many Tbilisians typically go on holiday. "Last year we were up to here," he says running a finger under his chin. "We had to turn people down; some offered us money to kick guests out. This year was slow." He blames the economy and August's rainy weather for the bad season.

But tourist seasons fluctuate, states Jemal Inaishvili, Chairman of the Board of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He goes on to say that the arrival of Pegasus airlines in Batumi means Georgians can easily afford to travel to Turkey, which is all perfectly natural in a competitive market.

"I flew to Batumi from Istanbul, which is very expensive now, and half the plane was full of Turks coming to Georgia," he observes.

As a successful businessman in his own right, Mr. Inaishvili views the entire Black Sea coast as a huge opportunity waiting for development. When asked about the wisdom of developing Anaklia, which borders the Abkhazian conflict zone, he retorts that something must be done for the Zugdidi region and talks about Anaklia's potential as a sailing destination from Batumi. Never mind there are no sailing boats to speak of in Batumi, there will be soon, he assures. And how can you doubt him? New buildings are sprouting up like dandelions all along the Adjaran coastline. Hotels are going up faster than they can find employees to fill the positions. More foreign tourists are arriving each year. Sure there are problems, but the Chairman's optimism reduces them to trifles.

"A lot has to be done, but we are very close. Step by step, we are closer to our final goal," Inaishvili smiles.

EXPLORING TBILISI: A GUIDE

Two new guidebooks were recently published for foreign and expat residents in Tbilisi - an effort to bridge the gap in information available about the Paris of the Caucasus.

Falling in love with Tbilisi is easy - but learning the city can be difficult. For years tourists and expats alike have struggled over the lack of information, maps and guidebooks.

But two recently published books are treasure troves of information for newcomers - as well as good references for long term residents.

In September, the International Women's Associations (IWA) released its second edition of Tbileasy, a guide that caters to newcomers struggling with the day to day problems of moving in and getting settled.

Designed as a directory, Tbileasy provides up-to-date information on everything from catering to emergency ambulance services, including information about internet connections, banks, schools and language courses.

"[T]he guidebook was envisioned to provide day to day information for people who live in the city," Marta Lubeck explained.

"[T]here are a number of good tourist guides on sale already, so creating a guidebook for tourists would not add very much to what is already out there. We decided to focus on something in which we have relative expertise."

City Pass Tbilisi Guide takes a different approach. The pocket-sized guide is heavy on restaurants and shopping, with maps and walking tours included. There are directories of pharmacies and business services, as well.