Call it a case of supremely bad timing. Among the economic casualties of the war with Russia are not only Georgia's ports and energy transportation grid, but its summer tourism industry, once considered an engine for economic growth. Despite the dimming prospects for a rapid Russian pullout, Georgian tourism officials and industry professionals retain hope that the damage done to the sector can be repaired relatively quickly.
Over the past few years, the Georgian government has poured millions of lari into developing the country's tourism potential. Over a million visitors a figure that combines tourists with business travelers came to Georgia in 2007, according to official figures. As one foreign consultant commented, tourism in Georgia was on the brink of "becoming a really big deal."
When fighting with Russia broke out on August 8, though, that bright picture suddenly turned dark. Approximately 10,000 tourists have left Georgia over the past 10 days, the government estimates. And officials expect the number of both leisure and business visitors to remain low for the foreseeable future. "This conflict and this emergency situation has very negatively influenced tourism," said Beka Jakeli, head of the tourism department.
Despite a recent withdrawal agreement, Russian soldiers still control key Georgian cities, including Gori and the Black Sea port of Poti, and have blocked the country's only east-west highway. Their armored vehicles often cruise the seaside highway linking Poti with Georgia's main Black Sea tourism hub, Batumi, scaring away both Georgians and foreigners from the west coast's most favored vacation spots.
No hard and fast number has been put on lost tourism revenue as yet, but for hotels and tour operators, the conflict could not have come at a worse time. August is Georgia's peak tourist season, when life in Tbilisi slows to a snail's pace as families and visiting foreigners -- head en masse for the Black Sea coast or the mountains.
In the Black Sea beach town of Ureki, some 10 kilometers south of Poti, Eldorado Hotel manger Zurab Morchuvadze says that "practically no one" is left at his establishment, one of the town's most popular. The hotel had been fully booked through August, with 70 percent of the guests from Armenia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and other countries, he said.
But three days into the conflict, when Russia bombed Poti's port, those guests started to go. "[W]e are close to Poti and [we could] hear when the explosions took place. It was not very pleasant," Morchuvadze said. "The population was in a panic."
While no immediate plans exist to close the hotel, Morchuvadze worries that if Russia's occupation of Georgian territory continues for an extended period, hoteliers and other entrepreneurs who cater to tourists will have no choice but to shut down. Those who now show up to swim are locals, and they do not stay for long. "No one knows what will happen. Today Russian forces came to Poti, took some things and arrested people. Of course [that scares people]," Morchuvadze told EurasiaNet on August 19. "We are not ready to close the hotel, but if this continues, we will have to close down."
Reviving tourism promises to be a daunting challenge. Jakeli, the tourism department head, suggested that a massive PR campaign would be needed in 2009 to dispel the negative publicity generated by the conflict. A million-dollar marketing initiative called "Europe Started Here," launched before the outbreak of hostilities, could serve as a starting point.
The resilience of international hotel chains that had launched ventures in Batumi and Tbilisi is another source of hope for tourism officials. So far, none of the chains have backed out of their multi-million dollar development deals, according to Jakeli. "All these brands are still under construction," he said.
Nonetheless, the negative publicity has already made its mark, notes one American consultant active in Georgia's tourism campaign. "This kind of publicity worldwide, will make your average, non-adventure tourist at least think twice before coming to Georgia," said Mark Rein Hagen, the former director of the tourism department's office of strategy and communications.
Safety guarantees will be key to any kind of tourism revival, believes Ia Tabagari, general manager for Tbilisi's Caucasus Travel agency, one of Georgia's oldest tour operators. The agency had roughly 150 foreign tourists in Georgia at the time of the conflict and "numerous" bookings for the next few months, Tabagari said. They are now faced with a 50-percent cancellation rate. "[W]e need real guarantees of security," she said. "I believe they [tourists] will come, but it will take a long time to [for tourism to] recover."
According to PR consultant Hagen, it will all come down to the country's ability to market itself once the conflict is over. "[[I]t takes a while for that impression to die," he said of the war scenes now shaping most foreign news coverage of Georgia. "But, literally, once Russian soldiers are off Georgian territory, I think things will go back to normal very, very quickly, especially for tourism purposes
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter currently based in west Georgia.