By CHRISTOPHER DELISO
TBILISI, Georgia, Oct. 29, 2002 (UPI) — When the World Tourism Organization recently threatened to remove Georgia from its ranks, President Eduard Shevernadze himself had to intervene. Only then would the Ministry of Finance commit to pay the country’s $130,000 membership dues — now, six years in arrears.
Georgia’s restitution plan, introduced Oct. 10 and scheduled to begin within four months, pledges double annual payments until the amount has been made up. While it will retain its membership status, Georgia remains bereft of a vote until the debt is cleared, Tbilisi’s Sarke Information Agency reports.
This humiliation is especially bitter for once-affluent Georgia. Until communism’s collapse, the nation received almost 10 million, mostly Soviet, tourists annually, who flocked to its Black Sea beaches and mountain resorts. This year, it will be lucky to see 300,000 visitors.
Ten years after the unresolved secessionist wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s tourism infrastructure remains dilapidated. After almost total collapse in 1992-96, the industry is slowly recovering. Potholes and bribe-collecting policemen mar the roads, and trips that might take six hours by car last 12 hours on Georgia’s creaking railway. Hotels are incongruously expensive, given their frequent state of disrepair and the bewildering Georgian alphabet can make navigation futile for even the most intrepid of travelers.
Besides new infrastructure, the country sorely needs a new image. Georgia has become known in the West — when it is acknowledged at all — as a sketchy land of instability and kidnappings, a country where al Qaida may be lurking and which borders unhelpfully on Chechnya.
Valiant efforts are, however, being made by tourism officials and foreign-aided non-governmental organizations, such as the Georgian Association of Agrotourism. Supported by the Eurasia Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the German Foundation for International Development, this group publishes a glossy magazine and Web site (eatsc.org) that bill the region as “Earth paradise in the southeast of Europe.”
There are other obstacles, however. GAA President Levan Palandishvili told United Press International that, along with infrastructure and image building, the main problem is the inordinate cost of travel. “Our tourists need only about $15 for their daily expenses — the only problem is getting them here,” Palandishvili said. “It’s very strange to a German tourist when he must pay $150 for his whole vacation, but $500 just for airfare.”
On top of this is Georgia’s steep visa regime, an apparent budget subsidizer that can only discourage tourism. American citizens, for example, are expected to cough up $80 for a 2-week visa — this even before the suspicious “computer fees” and other nibbles taken out by chronically underpaid border officials.
Georgia is, admittedly, an out-of-the-way place. Ticket prices will probably always be a little higher than tourists would like. Yet cronyism and protectionism at high levels have also aided the trend. States Palandishvili, “When Germania Airlines wanted to offer a cheaper Cologne-Tbilisi flight, Georgian Airlines — which through the government controls the airports — prevented it.”
This trend affects even relatively close connections, like Turkey. If one has the time to spare, the Istanbul-Tbilisi overland trip (28 hours) can be made for just as many dollars.
One-way airfare, on the other hand, starts at $350, and round-trip prices, at $450. All this because of Turkish Airlines’ monopoly.
The problem with air carriers — especially Turkish Airlines — is of particular importance to the government, claims Vazha Shubladze, chairman of the state Tourism Department. But no concerted approach exists. Shubladze conceded recently to Sarke that, “formulating a specific strategy would depend on financing, which is currently absent.”
This is not an exaggeration. In one of the truly scandalous incidents to befall Georgian tourism, the entire 2002 budget of $750,000 was re-appropriated — in order to pay Georgia’s U.N. membership dues. From this it would seem that the government does not take the tourism sector seriously — a disheartening thought for the many who see limitless potential in Georgia’s natural beauty, archaeological sites and cultural life.
In fairness, however, Russian strong-arming over the alleged terrorist presence in the Pankisi Gorge forced Parliament last month to approve a defense spending increase of some $6.5 million. Tourism proved expendable.
Laments Palandishvili, “Georgia is a very unique place. It has almost all of the world’s different climate zones. It has mountains, vineyards and seacoast, and over 3,500 years of history … (but) how can it take off when our famous people — our politicians, bankers, lawyers, etc. — don’t even choose to take their vacations at home?”
There are reasons for optimism, however. A recent GAA marketing campaign, which circulated the organization’s magazine to travel agents, embassies and tourist organizations worldwide, has generated new foreign interest.
And last year, the eminent publisher “Lonely Planet” introduced travelers to Georgia’s “wine-soaked hospitality” in what was pitched as the region’s first comprehensive guide.
Already in 2002, an increasing number of tourists have been noted from many countries, such as Russia, the United States, China, Korea and Turkey.
The increase in Japanese tourists, states Shubladze, followed the opening of Georgia’s tourism office in Tokyo. Georgia’s delegation at the World Tourism Forum’s 2002 “Silk Road” convention in Uzbekistan also developed contacts and traded experiences with officials from neighboring states. And another workshop recently held in Tbilisi, with German assistance, brought together tour operators and NGOs to develop a tourism strategy.
But perhaps most important, according to Shubladze, is a recently drafted bill currently being considered by Parliament. The bill aims to encourage foreign investment in building infrastructure, by offering tax concessions.
At the end of the day, however, the fate of Georgian tourism will not ultimately be decided at home. It’s instead bound up with larger economic projects, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the TRANSECA highway project, and therefore supported for different reasons.
The United States and its allies would like to strip Russian influence from the Caucasus and Central Asian region, and recast it in the Western political mold. Already, there seem to be considerable — and confusing — benefits all around.
The pipeline’s masters, British Petroleum, are Tbilisi Airport’s exclusive fuel suppliers. The same corporation was recently challenged by a bevy of (Western-funded) environmental NGOs, over the potential hazards the pipeline may pose to the environment and tourism sector.
The Soros-affiliated Eurasia Foundation funds media projects (eurasianet.org) and NGOs that seem to have a strong interest in human rights, the environment, and colossal, Western-backed industrial adventures. When acclaimed academic Elguja Khintibidze wanted to publish a compendium of scholarly articles, he got funding from Georgia’s favorite military suitor — NATO.
This remarkable synergy may, however, become self-destructive. It seems Georgia is beginning to suffer from “Macedonia malaise,” whereby an addiction to foreign aid encourages laziness and under funding from the home government. A case in point is the pilfering of the 2002 tourism budget to cover U.N. dues.
Time is now, however, of the essence. On May 8 Tbilisi is slated to be the site of the annual, region-wide “Silk Road” convention. With barely six months to go, perhaps something more miraculous than presidential intervention will be required.
Readers who enjoyed this article (originally published by UPI here) will also like