In a move that emphasizes the South Caucasus country's emerging ties with the Middle East, Georgia’s largest carrier, Airzena Georgian Airways, has launched direct flights to Erbil, capital of the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan in Iraq.
Georgia and Iraq have visa-free travel and a growing number of Iraqis of late have been trekking out to Georgia by land or by connecting flights. After the number hit 7,000 last year, Airzena started negotiations with the government of Kurdistan over a direct air link.
The region's relative safety and the new money produced by the development of its energy resources seem to have motivated the pick of Erbil, but the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and the Kurdish cultural hub of Sulaymaniah are next on the list.
“To our surprise the plane was almost 90 percent full, which does not usually happen on the first flights to new destinations,” Airzena spokesperson Keti Mgeladze said of the debut, March 24 Erbil-Tbilisi flight. “Some passengers knew very little about Georgia and we were giving them details on board about the hotels and places to go.”
The Kurdistan region and Erbil may be, as TIME Magazine reported, Iraq’s best bet for tourism, but it looks unlikely to get flooded anytime soon with camera-snapping Georgians. While 70 passengers from Erbil ventured to Tbilisi, no Georgian passengers opted for Airzena's first flight to the Kurdish city.
Airzena, of course, hopes that will change, but some observers believe the stronger bet is for traffic to Georgia from Iraq. Georgia could become one of the regional R&R spots for expat workers in Iraq, they say. Airzena, though, bets mostly on Iraqis who, Mgeladze said, seemed interested in casinos and restaurants.
The 70 passengers on the first Erbil-Tbilisi flight exceeded the total number of Iraqi visitors to Georgia for 2011.
As Georgia further diversifies away from its traditional tourism markets in the former Soviet Union, Georgian travel operators are increasingly looking for business opportunities in the Islamic world, for centuries cast as the staunchly Christian country's mega-enemy.
Georgians now snap up bathroom tiles and other construction materials at a growing number of Iranian shops, while Iranians are found haggling over cars or car parts at the country's competitively priced automobile markets. In summer, Tbilisi residents pass curious looks at Iranian men, almost invariably decked out in white shirts and black slacks, sauntering by.
Will Iraq be the new Iran, as far as Georgia’s tourism interests are concerned?