Issue 4, 2016. August-September



For years tourists to Georgia have been limited to buying wine or, perhaps, a carpet. But entrepreneurs are now tapping into the country's rich traditions to create a bounty of goodies for travelers.

Helena Bedwell

Everyone has likely heard of "All I got was this" slogan t-shirts− they are funny and satisfy the taste of many people.

Souvenirs, memorabilia and merchandise must be one of the first priorities for any self-respecting country eager to develop its tourism industry. Georgia, as its number of tourists grows by the millions, faces the same challenge: what to sell tourists?

From Fridge Magnets to Wine

When CNN anchor Jill Doherty asked me to take her to a shop in Tbilisi to buy something to take back home for her relatives, especially for one little boy, it was hard for me to advise immediately where to take her.

We both went together to a nearby shop and it surprised me how difficult it was to choose. The fridge magnets look similar to any other magnets in the world; clay pots and vessels are fun but hard to travel with; there were t-shirts... and suddenly I came across wine bottle covers with the shape of the national costume. Who wouldn't want that as a gift?

After 11 years being based in Tbilisi for work and family reasons, and hosting numerous visitors from all over the world, I have to say that the task of giving something to visitors has finally gotten easier. You only have to take a little trip down to Leselidze Street in the Old Town - or any of the side streets − to pick a gift.

After visiting many shops and randomly speaking to the buyers, I see that customers are happy too. Some love the khinkali-shaped candles, but denounce the wine bottles with a picture of Stalin. Others love the variety of thick felt dolls, but hate the image of a Georgian man with large belly and horn in his hand; some love the historic replicas of bronze figurines, Georgian tablecloths and traditional Tushuri socks. I even saw a company that sells socks with khinkali on them! But there is the potential to do more. Let's take Great Britain, where the Queen's birthday, the birth of any little prince or princess, their weddings - in short, their legacy - make up a healthy share of the £4.5 billion worth of souvenirs tourists buy in Britain every year, according to China plates with the faces of the royal family, beefeaters cookie boxes, or postcards with beautiful views of historic London - everyone benefits out of such kitsch sales, including shop owners, tourists and the state itself.

So coming home from the UK, you grab something with the face of the baby Prince George. From Kyiv, you try to squeeze Kyivskii tort (Kyiv cake) into the plane; from Thailand, you stash spices in your bag − or matryoshka from Moscow. But Georgia's basic souvenirs - a bottle of wine or churchkhela (a grape juice energy bar) are no longer the staple gift package.

Cataloging Creativity

Innovative ideas are the next big step for the Georgian gift market. China is the main manufacturer of souvenirs for Georgia, as well as for countries worldwide, but Georgia is slowly introducing more sophisticated and arty items. The potential is practically unlimited: many internationally known or locally famous artists and craftsmen have already made a mark on the gift market industry. Some efforts are already underway.

At the beginning of the summer, the Tbilisi municipality introduced a catalog of 32 artists who create hand-made gifts, many inspired by Old Tbilisi and its unique views. Mainly aimed at foreign tourists and important guests, this is a positive start, although more needs to be done to make unique souvenirs available for everyone, not just for special guests.

Makuna Bakhtadze owns a gift-shop called Makuna's Mortuloba, which means "hand-made by Makuna." This shop is never short of visitors, and most are amazed at her unique silk garments, thick felt hair accessories and Georgian natural-mineral stone jewelry.
But she said more can be done.

"There is no unified vision for Georgia on what our iconic image is," Makuna said in an interview. "I believe we have many images we could turn into our trademark look, our icon." People like Makuna have a point. Georgians could still come up with dozens of ideas to create souvenirs representing Tbilisi or any of Georgia's regions, but most of all, Georgians need to agree on what can be produced and sold that would help tourists remember their sweet days in Georgia.

A Bit of Stalin from the Dry Bridge

For some wealthy Russians, dropping down to Tbilisi for a weekend to sip some wine, simply to attend a wedding in the Georgian countryside, or to visit Old Tbilisi, has become a habit. About 18 months ago, I first heard of a local designer selling largely to these weekend visitors. Cotton shirts and dresses quickly became a very distinctive look among young girls all over town, or at the seaside resorts like Batumi. These dresses, earrings and other fashion items are also a kind of souvenir for them. Fashion trademark and signature dresses are indeed a good idea. However, many wish these to become more affordable and accessible, as these items run out quickly, despite their high price tags.

The blog Georgia Starts Here has even more boutique suggestions, including Gallery 27 (8 Sioni Street), Badagi Shop (2 Miminoshvili Street), and Studio Ornament (7 Erekle II Street).

Those who do not favor fashion, go to the Dry Bbridge market, probably the largest souvenir store in the country, under the open sky in downtown Tbilisi. Here you can find Stalin merchandise and Soviet memorabilia, such as old tea cups and Stalin-era room knickknacks.

Some free advice: Do try to find funky stuff here, really memorable, unlike you will find in any regular shops. Do not try to find expensive artifacts, worth reselling in other markets. Don't forget, it's just a souvenir.

Nearby, there are also dozens of merchants selling traditional Caucasian carpets.

Just before I left Tbilisi in late June, I searched for the perfect gifts to bring relations overseas. I finally purchased several key rings with Georgian symbols on them, two bottles of wine, hygienically wrapped churchkhela and a box of spices. Despite the lack of a definitive Georgia-related icon, this was the best I could manage because, really, who could leave Georgia without those?