Issue 4, 2013. August-September

   

THE TRAVEL ADVISORY CONUNDRUM

Georgia is a gem for tourists: a relatively inexpensive, unexplored, beautiful country that still welcomes foreigners and prides itself on keeping them safe. Travelers, airlines, and international investors have already fallen under its charms: why, then, are the travel advisories for visitors so alarmist?

For anyone who has ever been to Georgia, or lived in Tbilisi, the only mystery about travel journalists' new love affair with the country is why has it taken so long for them to figure it out.

This year, even British Airways listed Tbilisi, alongside Las Vegas, Rio de Janerio, and Seoul, as one of its top ten destinations for travelers, naming it a "a fascinating smorgasbord of cultural influences." But the British government views travel to the country through less rose-tinted glasses: its latest advisory warns travelers against driving at night and even mentions the threat of terrorism - even though there has not been a single major terrorist attack or threat against Georgia, while large-scale attacks have, unfortunately, been carried out in London, New York, and other foreign capitals. The Canadian and U.S. governments are equally cautious. The U.S. State Department echoes London's warnings about traveling at night, and urges U.S. citizens to "vary" times and travel routes, travel in groups, avoid public transportation and "keep a low profile."

While warnings about travel to separatist regions like South Ossetia and Abkhazia could be justified since the regions are not under Tbilisi's control and embassy staff has little access or influence there, the fears about crime, robbery, and attacks on foreigners seem alarmist in light of Georgia's low crime rates. The country has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, based on the findings of a 2011 survey funded by the European Union, less than a percent of the 3000 people surveyed nationwide had been a victim of robbery or assault.

While the Georgian government has reportedly lobbied hard to have the travel advisories toned down in light of the reality on the ground, diplomats note that foreign governments are obliged to err on the side of caution. The policy is across the board, one diplomat said, adding that there are even dire travel warnings from some governments against visiting towns within the United States.The British government warns travelers to the US about terrorism threats; the Canadian government warns travelers to Miami about potential "break-ins, assaults and pickpocketing" and instructs citizens to "exercise caution" and "[r]emain alert and discreet while in entertainment areas." There have been reports that travel advisories issued by the U.S. State Department has discouraged tourists from coming to Georgia. Tourism specialists, however, noted the negative travel advisories have not affected tourism to Georgia: the number of international tourists grew 38 percent from 2010 to 2011, from 2.03 million to 2.82 million, and increased an additional 56 percent in 2012.