Issue 4, 2012. August-September

   

KUTAISI AIRPORT, THE TIP OF THE TOURIST BOOM?

Georgian officials say that discount flights to Kutaisi will be a boom to the local economy and Georgian tourism in general when the city's renovated airport opens this fall, but local tour operators maintain there is much more work to be done for the city to be able to handle the coming influx of tourists.

An artist's rendition of the new Kutaisi Airport.


Nick Clayton

Wizz Air, the largest low-cost carrier in Central and Eastern Europe, announced in June that it would be the first international airline to use the airport, beginning three weekly flights between Kutaisi and Kiev in September. This news came earlier than expected, as the renovation of the airport, which had long been out of use after serving as a Soviet military airfield, was slated to be completed no sooner than October.

Still, the arrival of Wizz Air to the Georgian market has excited tour agencies, as it will provide bargain flights to the country, starting at €22.99 ($28).

"The biggest problem for [Georgian tour agencies] has always been the prices of flights," said Gvantsa Razmadze, Marketing Manager of Georgia's oldest tour agency, Caucasus Travel.

The price tag on most flights in and out of Tbilisi, and Batumi, to nearby hubs starts at several hundred dollars. Budget carrier Pegasus offers daily flights between Istanbul and Tbilisi starting at €79.99 ($98), but uses Istanbul's Gokcen airport, making international connections complicated. As a point of entry, Kutaisi's central location is also more convenient for arriving travelers interested in Adjara and Svaneti, said Caucasus Travel General Director Maia Khubuluri.

"It presents the opportunity to make leisure packages for people traveling to Adjara and the areas in between, because it's about a two-hour drive," she said. "From the Kutaisi airport to Svaneti, you can get there in one day, which is important because if you arrive in Tbilisi at midnight, you have to stay one night in a hotel and then spend another day getting to Mestia."

However, the addition of cheap flights and a third point of entry into Georgia for air travelers has exposed other weaknesses in the local tourism infrastructure, said Inga Mumladze, Deputy Director of Concord Travel.

"The situation is like this: if you want to develop the region, we need to build new hotels; some roads are not finished yet, some places are not reachable right now," she said.

Mumladze said the lack of hotels in Kutaisi is particularly acute, keeping prices high, while quality remains low.

"When a group comes, they expect to have twin rooms, like they can all around the world, with the same kind of beds. In Kutaisi You cannot find a hotel with twin rooms - real twin rooms," she said. "You know, we want to operate, we want to have groups in Kutaisi, but somehow it's impossible. And when you negotiate with an airline company or a tour operator, in the end, they go somewhere else."

Bagrati1003, Kutaisi's only five-star hotel, charges 155-180 lari ($94-108) per night for double rooms and has more negative reviews than positive on TripAdvisor.com, with one reviewer saying "the only five star thing about it was the price," and another comparing it to "Saddam's palace circa 1990."

Khubuluri from Caucasus Travel said there is great demand for "tourist-class hotels" in Georgia, especially in Kutaisi. What currently exists, she said, is a large amount of big high-end hotels and low-capacity affordable bed-and-breakfasts. What are needed are more mid-level hotels with 60 or more rooms that can soak up the demand for large groups. Both Khubuluri and Mumladze said that their agencies regularly have to turn away travel groups interested in Kutaisi due to the scant availability of rooms.

But Giorgi Tsikolia, First Deputy Director of the Georgian National Investment Agency, said he expects the situation to improve rapidly as Kutaisi develops. He said the opening of Kutaisi's Kopitnari Airport represents the second stage of Georgia's air travel development.

The first stage, he said, was to allow Turkish firm TAV to take over the Tbilisi and Batumi airports to make them more attractive to international airlines. Now, the government is focused on developing regional airports in Mestia, Poti and Kutaisi, the latter being a part of a wider strategy to remake Georgia's second largest city into a major business center.

By moving the Parliament to Kutaisi, Tsikolia said he expects the demands presented by international delegations to quickly expand both the air traffic through Kutaisi airport, but also the market for hotels in the city.

"Currently, if you look at Kutaisi, you find that there is what, one hotel that provides more or less adequate service? The opportunities over there are huge. The first guys that come in - we're talking about four-and-five-star hotels - those are the ones that will get the biggest gains," he said.

However, the prospect of a new rush of budget tourists to Georgia has not been universally welcomed by the country's tourism industry. Mumladze said that the government organized a forum in June with industry representatives on the topic, "Do we need more tourists?"

In discussions, she said the various sides debated whether Georgia should work to lower prices and orient itself towards attracting mass tourism like Turkey with its affordable all-inclusive resorts, or if the country should stick to lower-volume "niche tourism," involving adventure tours, cultural excursions and the like. In the end, the vote was a 50-50 split among industry associations.

"I think that Georgia is not the kind of country that needs, like, 10 million tourists. Right now, we just cannot serve them. It should not be very cheap, it should be interesting and special, with special types of tourists," she said.

Betsy Haskell, founder of AmCham Georgia and Betsy's Hotel in Tbilisi, said that Georgia has room for all types of tourism, but noted that the country has yet to fully capitalize on the economic opportunities presented by its recent tourism boom.

In a recent AmCham experiment, she said she sent groups of four expatriates to Georgia's top six tourism destinations and took down their comments upon their return. Their #1 complaint, she said, was, "There was nothing to buy."

"That's what Western tourists do. They like to travel, but when they get there, they want to buy things; it doesn't even matter what. Georgia still has a ways to go, but there's a lot of money still out there for them in this industry."