HomeLifestyleGeorgia: Popular with Russian tourists despite political tensions

Georgia: Popular with Russian tourists despite political tensions

Georgian dressed in a white linen shirt and beige trousers tour guide Levan Dwali calms down as I wait on a shady bench in Tbilisi’s beautiful April 9 Park. It’s comfortably quiet here, only a stone’s throw from the capital’s bustling Shota Rustaveli Avenue, which is packed with tourists and locals. This well-kept park—named after the Tbilisi tragedy of April 9, 1989, when Soviet forces ruthlessly dispersed and killed Georgian pro-independence protesters, brimmed with Russians and tourists from across the country. Provides the perfect background for talking about complex relationships. (Also read: Russian tourists flock to non-European destinations)

Dwali, 38, who started working as a guide in 2017, says Russians love spending their holidays in Georgia. “This is one of the best destinations for them: the Black Sea, the good food, the hospitality,” he proudly tells me. Devilla used to show Russian holidays around his home country, but recalls disagreements with some who refused to believe that the Soviet Union’s influence on Georgia was anything other than benevolent. She has no problem with Russian visitors – her own sister-in-law and cousins ​​live in Russia – though some consider Georgia to be little more than a delightfully affordable vacation destination.

Why are Russians drawn to Georgia

According to the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the number of Russians visiting Georgia has been increasing steadily since 2011. In 2019, one and a half million people traveled there, generating approximately $700 million (€687 million) in revenue.

Georgia’s dramatic Caucasus mountains, lush valleys, beautiful Black Sea beaches, diverse cuisine and wine make it an appealing vacation destination. On top of that, Georgians are renowned for their hospitality.

All this explains why the Russians are drawn to the country. But both also have a long history: Georgia was once part of the Russian Empire, and then a Soviet republic.

a rocky relationship

However, Russia-Georgian relations have become strained in recent years. In 2008, the two countries fought a brief war over South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separate province north of Georgia. Russian troops are stationed there, as well as in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Its forces now occupy 20% of Georgian territory.

In the summer of 2019, when some violent protests in Tbilisi over undue Russian interference in Georgian affairs, Russia suspended direct flights to the country. At that time, Russian officials urged their compatriots to leave Georgia, advising not to travel there. The flight ban is still in effect today. The number of Russian tourists in Georgia subsequently declined, which dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.

the russians keep coming

Nevertheless, Georgia’s land border with Russia remains open. To enter, Russians – like EU citizens – do not need a visa. While Georgia is still accessible, more and more European states are restricting entry to Russian tourists. From this Monday (19.09.2022), Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Poland, made it difficult for Russians to enter, including those with valid Schengen visas. There are exceptions for passengers and dissidents on humanitarian grounds, but most Russians must enter the European Union by other routes, for example by flying from Georgia.

With Georgia’s land border open, many Russians continue to flow into the country. And Tbilisi’s streets, restaurants, bars and museums are full of Russian-speakers – although how many of them are in exile or ordinary holidaymakers isn’t always clear.

During the evening’s leisurely dinner in the capital’s charming old town, I began a conversation with 38-year-old Fedor Portnikh, sitting at a neighboring table with his parents. In immaculate English, Jovial Muscovite tells me that he left Russia for Prague after Putin invaded Ukraine in February. Now, he is visiting Georgia to visit his parents on a “neutral basis,” as they call it, because he considers Russia a “prison” where free speech is curtailed. He says his parents, who still live in Moscow, went to Georgia by bus, waiting for several hours at the Russian and Georgian border checks.

Despite Georgia’s difficult ties with Russia and a widespread sense of solidarity among Georgians towards beleaguered Ukraine, Portnikh says he has no animosity towards Russian-speakers. In fact, he tells me, older Georgians were very polite and even spoke Russian, although younger Georgians were more reserved.

Many in Georgia’s tourism industry warmly welcome Russian vacationers – but despise the Russian president. “We always try to be decent,” Marika Kopadze, an energetic mother of two, who runs the City Heart Hotel in Tbilisi with her husband, tells me. Then she adds: “But what about that? [Russian President] Putin? Never in Georgia, would we love that!”

It seems that most Georgians share their views.

not everyone wants to talk politics

Several days later, hiding from the ruthless afternoon sun in a cafe in Georgia’s ancient capital of Mtskheta, I am meeting a friendly Russian couple enjoying their lunch. They tell me they are from the Ural Mountains and have traveled here by car – a distance of about 2,000 kilometers (1,242 mi). They are also very fond of Georgian food, they tell me, as they tuck into their order of khinkali, or Georgian dumplings.

When I reveal that I am a journalist and ask them about the war in Ukraine and whether they feel welcome in Georgia, the mood changes. The man weighs his words carefully, telling me “We have an opinion, but we don’t want to voice it.” He tells me he’s suspicious of DW and most other media outlets, including Russia. He also said that he finds sanctions against Russia “absolutely incomprehensible”.

I guess the two have no desire to continue talking about politics, so we quickly return to admire the Georgian fare and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Elizabeth Grenier. edited by

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