Almost a year after war with Russia sent foreign tourists scurrying away, Georgia is telling travelers that it is safe to come back, and betting on a combo of Georgia's idyllic mountain scenery, new hotels and public toilets to cinch their interest.
Tourists beat a hasty retreat after the August 2008 war, depressing tourism's share of Georgia's overall Gross Domestic Product by 0.4 percentage points, to 3.7 percent of Georgia's 2008 GDP of $12.7 billion.
The government has no precise mechanism to calculate how many tourists are actually coming to Georgia, but hotel owners and tour operators say that numbers this year are sagging. Some 1.3 million foreign citizens came to Georgia in 2008 -- a 23 percent increase over 2007 -- but most of those travelers are believed to have come on business, said Beka Jakeli, deputy chairman of the Georgian Ministry of Economic Development's Department of Tourism and Resorts.
To help pick up the slack, the government funneled 2 million lari (some $1.2 million) this year into Georgia's tourism industry, with a particular focus on advertising and infrastructure development.
Rather than ads on CNN, the government uses social networking sites such as Flickr, YouTube or Odnoklasniki, a Russia-based equivalent of Facebook hugely popular within the former Soviet states, to get the message out about travel opportunities in Georgia.
That means emphasizing anything other than topics related to last year's five-day war. For the conflict's one-year anniversary on August 8, Batumi, a Black Sea resort town popular with sun-seeking tourists throughout the South Caucasus, will host a rock concert and see the kick-off of an exhibit of Pablo Picasso's sketches, drawings and linocuts. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Georgian tourism department has also installed live web cameras in Batumi so that visitors to a Georgia travel portal can see for themselves that the Russian invasion did not leave the coastal town a smoking ruin.
Aside from touting Batumi, official attention has now also focused on the remote mountain regions of Svaneti, in the country's northeast, and Tusheti, in eastern Georgia along the border with the Russian republics of Chechnya and Daghestan.
Government tourism officials say they see diversity as Georgia's regional competitive advantage. "In a very small area, you have both seaside resorts and mountain resorts, as well as a plethora of historical sites and a winemaking region," said Nato Partskhaladze, deputy director of the Ministry of Economic Development's Department of Tourism and Resorts.
In this campaign, the US Agency for International Development is a key partner.
In Svaneti, a region known for its medieval towers and Georgia's highest mountains, USAID spent some $270,000 to install English-language signs and to open three hotels, an Internet cafe, and public restrooms in the regional seat, Mestia.
The hotels, signboards and Internet cafe may prompt smiles in Tbilisi, where Svaneti sometimes suffers from the same stereotypes that plague the US region of Appalachia, but locals say that tourism is recovering slowly. Several Russian tourists even made it to Mestia last month, Svan hotel workers told EurasiaNet with surprise.
A similar tactic has been taken for Tusheti -- a region inaccessible except in summer, and then only by helicopter or a grueling four-hour journey in off-road vehicles over dirt mountain roads. A USAID-funded tourist information center opened on July 19 in Tusheti's seat, Omalo, with President Saakashvili on hand to underline the government's interest in promoting Tusheti as a national park.
But even if tourists are assured that Georgia is safe again and spellbound by the country's mountains, one nagging problem remains -- a lack of toilets at key historical sites.
"We need more public restrooms," said Tourism Department Director Petre Kankava. "People cannot fully enjoy visiting historical sites unless there are facilities there." Aside from Svaneti, the government is also opening restrooms near the 6th century hilltop monastery of Jvari, a popular tourist site not far from Tbilisi.
Infrastructure and war worries are not the only potential challenges for foreign tourists curious about Georgia, however. With discount-traveler-friendly Turkey to its south, Georgia sometimes finds it hard to compete on price. High hotel prices at home even drive many middle-to-upper class Georgians to vacation in Turkey.
"Hotels in Ach'ara [Black Sea region that contains Batumi -- ed] or in the mountains do not have the basic things, such as slippers or shower caps, while for the price they charge I could have the time of my life in Antalya [Mediterranean Sea resort town in Turkey - ed], or I could add a little on top and go to Barcelona," said Tbilisi beauty salon manager Salome Sajaia.
The tourism department has urged hotels to make prices more affordable to lure greater numbers of travelers, but for now some hoteliers seem content with smaller numbers of wealthier guests.
One hotelier, who runs a lakeside retreat near Tbilisi, says that her business is run "the Georgian way." This means that considerable time is spent on networking with the government and non-governmental organizations to make sure the hotel is chosen as a venue for business gatherings.
Individual visitors are rare. A single room at the recreation complex costs $140. "Perhaps the price is a little high, but so long as we are making a profit it works for everyone," said the hotelier, who did not wish to be named.
With its infrastructure-plus-diversity strategy in place, though, the government hopes to change that mode of thinking eventually, and cater more to lone travelers.
An uptick in official visitor numbers drives that ambition.
Roughly 446,000 tourists are believed to have come to Georgia between January and June 2009 -- "only four percent down from 2008," according to the Department of Tourism and Resorts' Kankava. Officials say that means their efforts are paying off.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.