If the buzz is to be believed, 2018 may turn out to be yet another banner year for Georgia’s blossoming tourism industry. The newest darling of the international traveller set, Georgia is winning global acclaim with speed and aplomb, earning rave reviews and confident endorsements from a climbing stack of international media and travel outlets. In the furiously competitive race for new year visibility, Georgia has already earned enthusiastic 2018 nods from the likes of the London Guardian, LonelyPlanet.com, Bloomberg, National Geographic, the Financial Times, and CNN – and it’s only January.
Count me among the believers. It’s not hard to see Georgia’s allure. A country the size of South Carolina, it features sparkling palm-lined beaches, towering alpine peaks, lush primeval forests, rolling wine regions, and rich landscapes positively saturated with ancient ruins, castles, and churches. Georgia’s flavourful and unique cuisine commands a fanatical and growing fanbase; Georgian wine is winning converts and disrupting global winemaking trends; and the country’s tourism and hospitality infrastructure, certifiably dire not very long ago, is increasingly up to par.
The numbers bear this out. According to the Georgian National Tourism Agency (GNTA), 2017 saw a record number of international visitors come to the country at nearly 7.6mn. That represents a 19% increase over 2016, which held the previous record. Importantly, every world region (as designated by the agency) saw double digit growth.
The top visiting nationalities are mostly the ones one would expect – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey – but there are a few surprises as well. Though China (over 21,000 visitors, enough for a respectable 54% jump) tends to get local and international attention for its burgeoning ties with Georgia, it was India that sent some 60,000 visitors to Georgia last year, marking a 64% increase; Iran, long a healthy contributor to Georgian tourism, saw massive 118% growth in 2017 at 323,000 visitors; and Saudi Arabia, though starting from a lower base, saw an incredible 165% growth to more than 56,000 visitors.
Saudi Arabia’s impressive numbers look less like great luck and more like the fruits of a working strategy when one digs into the numbers. In the Middle East, as designated by the agency (for example, Israel is lumped with Europe, and Iran with South Asia), visitor volume swelled by over 84% last year – and no less than five countries in the region saw triple digit growth, with most other Mideast states posting solid to spectacular double digit figures. Clearly, Georgia is finding traction in that region as an attractive, affordable, and relatively nearby destination.
More anecdotally, in my travels to Georgia last year, the growth numbers of Middle Eastern tourists was visible and obvious. This was particularly evident in the mountainous regions, where the parks and boulevards of picturesque resort towns like Borjomi were filled with Arabic-speaking vacationers. As it turns out, compared to the oppressive heat of a Middle Eastern summer, Borjomi’s cool mountain air and famed mineral spring water is a pretty easy holiday decision.
It’s heady times for Georgian tourism, and deservedly so. Yet, while the growth of international tourism is an unqualified positive for the Georgian economy, it is less clear how it actually translates into sustained, inclusive economic development for the country itself.
One thing is for sure, though tourism is certainly generating economic activity and bringing in badly needed foreign dollars, it’s hardly going to be some kind of economic silver bullet for Georgia’s development. The GNTA itself pegs tourism’s contributions to the economy at only 7%, and while the most recent country report from the World Tourism & Travel Council is more optimistic at 8.1% (2016), tourism is clearly not the strategic economic panacea that Georgia’s boosters hope it to be.
Yet, modest numbers should not detract from the significance that tourism can have on the wider economy. While direct benefits of tourism rarely hit the doubt digits as a share of a country’s GDP or employment, indirect economic impacts are generally much more pervasive, as secondary and tertiary industries supporting and servicing the tourism industry often also benefit from tourism growth.
In addition, many of the same programmes, facilities, and infrastructure that are necessary to support international tourism can have broader economic utility. For example, efficient transport infrastructure, robust hospitality facilities, and large numbers of key foreign language speakers can enable and support other non-tourism economic activity. Companies can more effectively move goods and services on functioning roads; businesspeople can utilise vacant hotel space for meetings and conferences; a surge in English language proficiency suddenly makes outsourced call centers (relatively well-paying, labour intensive) a viable proposition.
Perhaps more importantly, the positive externalities borne from tourism-related investments can often also translate into quality of life gains for the local population. Sustained, high volume international tourism usually relies on regular electricity, clean water, reasonable internet penetration, clean streets, and safe communities in order to work well. These also happen to be important issues for locals as well; if those areas are addressed for tourists, they also can provide the same benefits for the resident population.
As Georgian international tourism transitions from accommodating adventure-seekers and risk takers to a high-volume flow of middle class holiday goers, the Georgian government will be hard pressed to develop the facilities that cater to growing demand without undermining Georgia’s uniqueness as a destination. In some ways, this concern can be overblown. The demolition-heavy Disneyland aesthetic favored by central planners during the Saakashvili era triggered extended controversy in Georgia at the time, but does not seem to have dented the enthusiasm of foreign travellers, which may be why the current government seems bent on its own version of mass redevelopment.
However, the issue is not merely a matter of enticing tourists; holiday factories in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea have little trouble attracting tourists, but they can also detract from community life, strain public services, and invite local ire. In Georgia, a small country with a mostly functioning if imperfect sort of representative democracy, a tourism model that favours sprawling, gated luxury campuses and distant corporate operators could provoke a backlash with political repercussions.
In Georgia’s subtropical city of Batumi on the Black Sea, throngs of Turkish tourists visit year-round, which has strongly contributed to the city’s development and reputation as a favoured regional destination. Yet the predominance of Turkish tourism has also prompted a wave of anti-Turkish sentiment in the city, providing a constituency for an assortment of nationalist politicians – and a heavy dollop of regular embarrassment for the government, which maintains close ties with Ankara.
That’s not to say that large luxury resort complexes do not have a place in Georgia’s tourism mix; they obviously do, but they are hardly the only answer to Georgia’s tourism development. In reality, Georgia is a competitive destination on price and proximity for only a relatively limited number of visitors – Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and a subset of Turks, Iranians, and Russians. For many, a low-cost flight to Antalya, Sharm El Sheikh, or Croatia may be easier or cheaper. For many other visitors (and probably including many of those from Georgia’s neighbouring countries), Georgia’s comparative advantages are in its distinctive cultural offerings and undeniable natural beauty (think about the Gulf visitors in Borjomi).
Fortunately for Georgia, a tourism model that embraces low-impact, sustainable tourism that promotes interactions with local communities already exists in Costa Rica. Small hospitality operators dominate offerings, and the Costa Rican government actively supports tourism development that minimises ecological impact and distributes intensity across a variety of small food and hospitality vendors, and discourages those that do not. In many ways, Georgia’s tourism industry is already well primed for such a model, with its thriving guesthouse and AirBnB culture and only relatively recent penetration by international hotel brands.
However, there is still much that the Georgian government can do to train and incentivise small operators to scale their offerings to increasingly discerning international tourists. Perhaps more importantly, the Georgian government can also take greater care to preserve the country’s cultural and natural resources. Regular, rigorous, and meticulous historical preservation remains a glaring blind spot, and the country’s famed natural beauty is undercut by appalling air quality, pollution, and rampant poaching and deforestation. A tourism policy that ignores these issues risks turning the country’s tourism potential into a non-renewable resource to be exploited until exhaustion.
Georgian tourism is on the cusp of greatness, but its newfound spotlight illuminates major risks as well as opportunities. Getting it right could cement tourism as a pillar of Georgian economic development for years to come. Failure, however, could breed discontent and contagion with little benefit for the country as a whole.
Michael Cecire is an International Security Fellow at New America and a non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.