When I passed through immigration at Georgia’s Tbilisi Airport, an agent quickly stamped my passport, then handed me a box.
Never before had I received a gift at an immigration checkpoint. The small bottle of red wine came with a message that said in part: “We warmly welcome you to Georgia, the country that gave wine to the world.” All arriving foreign-passport holders were gifted at entry in Tbilisi, a gesture that left no doubt about the country’s desire to please foreign visitors.
Georgia already is realizing some of its potential for wine tourism, with vintners in Kakheti, the country’s top winemaking region, offering tours and tastings.
Georgia claims to be the place where winemaking was born around 8,000 years ago, though some scholars credit other locations in the general vicinity.
Regardless of who got to the starting line first, winemaking, using millennia-old methods, is a vibrant 21st century business in Georgia. The country counts more than 500 indigenous grape varieties, all with unpronounceable names unknown in the West. Some popular European varietals have been imported recently, and today, selected wines are made using European techniques.
But traditional methods, which involve aging the crushed grapes with their seeds and skins in clay jars buried in the ground, are alive and well. The reds are so dark Georgians call them black.
In my experience, the traditional wines varied widely, from the dry and smooth tastes Westerners appreciate to something that was indescribably odd.
I sampled the wines when I accompanied a fam tour of Georgia sponsored by Panorama Travel in New York, with support from the Georgian National Tourism Administration. During this journey, we saw abundant evidence of the Georgians’ determination to build a tourism business, particularly through infrastructure development. Much has been accomplished in recent years, but plenty remains to be addressed.
Also, in recent years, international arrivals have risen sharply without even a blip during a 2008 war with Russia. Worldwide, the numbers rose from 559,753 in 2005 to more than 2.8 million in 2011. The bulk of arrivals were from neighboring countries, but the U.S. market, while small, was the largest outside a region that includes the Middle East. U.S. arrivals climbed from 12,922 in 2005 to 24,236 in 2011.
Worldwide, arrivals rose 56% in just the first nine months of 2012, compared with 2011. From the U.S., the increase was less stunning, but strong, at 21%.
International tourism receipts were nearly $1 billion last year.
Europe or Asia?
Georgia was one of three Soviet republics located south of the Caucasus Mountains. Today, it shares its longest international frontier with Russia to its north, and the bordering Russian regions include North Ossetia and Chechnya, the latter the scene recently of a bloody civil war.
Azerbaijan sits to the southeast, Armenia and Turkey to the south. The Georgia-Turkey border ends at the Black Sea, which forms Georgia’s western frontier.
Georgians say they live in Europe, although the United Nations and the CIA, among others, describe the location as western Asia. Georgians look west, in any case.
(The language and alphabet have no obvious geographic ties. Georgian and three related languages spoken here are the only members of the Kartvelian language group. No other language uses the Georgian alphabet.)
The country is diverse for its size, slightly smaller than South Carolina, giving it potential for wide touristic appeal. Cultural aspects include a uniquely Georgian cuisine to go with the wine, polyphonic music, traditional dances noted for the male dancers’ vigorous routines and a nearly 1,700-year history of Christianity with potential for pilgrimages.
The diversity also includes the resorts along the subtropical Black Sea coast and an attractive cruise destination at Batumi; bird-watching in a land of 360 species; and the Caucasus Mountains, a setting of great beauty, dotted with medieval villages and open for skiing, rafting, trekking, rock climbing and other adventures.
Still another angle is the opportunity to watch a developing country emerge.
Finally, there is history. Tbilisi sat on the storied Silk Road. Georgian women were among those favored for the sultans’ harems in Ottoman Turkey.
In Georgia, those were late developments. The country’s history stretches to antiquity when the kingdom of Colchis existed in western Georgia. Scholars believe Colchis is where the fabled Jason and the Argonauts sought and found the Golden Fleece -- and a local princess named Medea.
Georgians were early Christian converts (fourth century), and a strong king, David the Builder, united Georgian lands in the 12th century. Under his great-granddaughter, Queen Tamar, the country reached its zenith, extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian.
Before and after this golden age, the strategically located Georgia was invaded or occupied by every empire builder from Rome to Mongolia. Finally, late in the 18th century, Georgia signed a treaty making the country a Russian protectorate, largely to escape the Ottomans and Persians.
Accordingly, some of Georgia’s top attractions include churches and monasteries with medieval or earlier origins; ancient Colchis artifacts now in museums; and mountain villages featuring old stone towers built as refuges from attackers.
Medea, King David the Builder and Queen Tamar came up often in our tour guide’s narrative, and all paintings of a crowned woman were Queen Tamar.
However, the country’s troubled recent history has left nearly a fifth of Georgia off limits. Thomas de Waal deftly laid out these events in his 2010 book, “The Caucasus: An Introduction.”
Between 1991 and 1993 (as Georgia gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union) and again in 2008, Georgia fought unsuccessfully to gain full control over two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia, which crushed the independence movement in Chechnya on Georgia’s border, aggressively supported Abkhazia and South Ossetia and recognized their independence. Its troops remain in the regions. Almost no other country has recognized Abkhazia or South Ossetia.
Most ethnic Georgians fled the two areas, leaving the country with 265,000 displaced persons, according to the CIA.
At one point, our group drove past a huge refugee camp, comprising row upon row of small, identical white houses with red roofs.
The U.S. State Department “strongly discourages” travel to the breakaway areas. Even Georgia’s tourist map states: “These regions are not under the control of the central government. Thus, traveling to these regions is not advisable.”
We came, we saw
During our fam, we saw and experienced much that confirmed Georgia’s much-touted diversity. We also found a place where the rustic and traditional coexist with the modern and new.
Georgia’s government a few years ago set out to upgrade or replace infrastructure, and the results show.
In Tbilisi, the capital, we drove past the Public Service Hall, a modern glass building that opened Sept. 21 and is designed to enable citizens to do much of their business with the government in one place.
Similar modern, multipurpose service centers are being opened all over the country. There also are numerous new glass-sided police stations across the country.
In Batumi on the coast, President Mikheil Saakashvili attended the September opening of the Georgian-American IT University, housed in an ultramodern skyscraper near the beach, designed to train engineers and information technology specialists. It aims to partner with a U.S. university.
Soon the city is to have its own Trump Tower, a 47-story apartment complex on the beach.
The Parliament elected on Oct. 1 will be the first to meet in the country’s new Parliament building, a glass-domed affair located not in the capital but in Kutaisi, 143 miles to the west. The controversial relocation of Parliament is meant, in part, to foster regional development.
In an even bolder move, Saakashvili has overseen the first construction phases for an all-new Black Sea port called Lazika.
Maia Mdivnishvili, our escort, said tourism was a key reason Kutaisi has a new fountain in the town center highlighting oversize replicas of Colchis treasures.
In addition, Kutaisi’s opera house and other buildings are getting a makeover.
Mdivnishvili said the government is upgrading all regional centers in support of tourism. During our trip, she was the tourism manager for the Tbilisi-based operator Georgian Travel Group, but she has since left the firm to start her own tour business.
Restoration efforts are especially obvious in the Mestia resort, where downtown resembles a Swiss alpine village, and in Mtskheta. The latter is essentially a museum town (population 9,000), 12 miles north of Tbilisi.
Mtskheta was the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the third century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., during which Georgia adopted Christianity. Mtskheta remains the headquarters of the Georgian church, and its Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Buildings in the heart of Mestia and Mtskheta have recently undergone such thorough restorations that it is difficult to fathom that the buildings are not all new.
Not everything moves at the same pace. We experienced rough mountain roads, cows on highways and, in Mestia and other towns outside Tbilisi and Batumi, pretty basic hotels, though most offered WiFi. Public washrooms charged for the privilege of using squat toilets.
A couple of experiences were telling.
Our itinerary included a day trip from Mestia to Ushguli, described as Europe’s highest-altitude village -- never mind that not everyone considers this Europe or agrees on the altitude, which might be around 7,200 feet.
Just the same, Ushguli is a stunning site in a part of the Caucasus called Upper Svaneti. It comprises four settlements at the foot of Georgia’s tallest peak, the snow-capped, 17,000-foot Mount Shkhara. One Ushguli settlement appears on the Unesco lists.
However, it took three hours to drive the 27 miles of mountain roads from Mestia to Ushguli, including a few photo stops. Our retirement-age driver, a former communist of some standing locally, tooled along playing CDs featuring Sting and the Police. We viewed amazing scenery -- and huge new supports for electrical wires strung across the mountains to replace inadequate Soviet installations.
Tbilisi has Western-branded hotels with (happily) predictable services. However, at the Tbilisi Holiday Inn, front-desk personnel don’t change money or break bills.
A sign on the Bank of Georgia office stated that it was open 24 hours a day, but the Georgians apparently have their own definition of “open.” Aiming to break a large bill of the country’s currency into smaller denominations, I dropped in at 7:35 a.m. and was told to return at 9 because the bank was in the midst of a “change of shift.”
At the hotel’s front desk I complained that the bank was worthless and misleading about its availability. While one staffer nodded politely, the young man next to her gave me change with his own money.
My opinion of the hotel skyrocketed. The Bank of Georgia, not so much.
Joseph Jughashvili, aka Joseph Stalin, was born in Georgia, 42 miles northwest of Tbilisi. It is now the site of a Stalin Museum that, perversely, looks like a Tuscan villa.
Opened in 1957 to honor the hometown boy, the museum is offensive to many tourists because of Stalin’s infamous purges and mass murders.
Older Georgians don’t see things that way. It has been 21 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but Stalin’s statue was removed from the center of town just two years ago. In addition, the museum only recently added two small rooms with exhibits related to the Soviet dictator’s repressions. They were in response to visitor objections that the museum whitewashed Stalin’s tyrannical side.
Our museum guide described the displays of Stalin’s life story with significant omissions and without a hint of her own views.
The museum entry hall these days displays a banner in four languages that states, in part: “This museum is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and fabrication of history. ... The objective of this museum [was] to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.”
The banner says the museum, still a Soviet-era affair, will be converted into a Museum of Stalinism.
The banner would be a useful counterpoint to the Soviet-era exhibits except that staffers place it in a dark corner where most visitors, including our group, can’t see it.
Mdivnishvili, who was our local escort, said older Georgians “support” Stalin and believe that someone else was responsible for the purges of the 1930s. Besides, they insist, “Stalin kept prices down.”
Referring to post-World War II, she said, “People lived better in the Soviet time.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia’s economy crashed. Gross domestic product fell 73% from 1991 to 1994, de Waal said. The population has fallen, too, as Georgians have gone seeking opportunities elsewhere.
Even so, Mdivnishvili did not wax nostalgic about a regime that, for one thing, sent her grandfather to his death in the gulag. “We hope to live better in the future,” she said.
The country’s prospects
Although the American tourist market is growing nicely, Georgia presents challenges as well as opportunity.
It is a long way from North America, and there is no direct air service between the U.S. and Georgia.
Hotels outside the cities or beyond the Black Sea coast are fairly basic. Four- and five-star hotels flying well-known flags are available in Tbilisi (Holiday Inn, Marriott, Radisson Blu, Sheraton) and Batumi (Intourist Palace, Radisson Blu, Sheraton).
Further, if Americans know about Georgia at all, it is usually as a result of the 2008 war with Russia. And few tour operators offer programs to Georgia.
Mariam Kvrivishvili, deputy head of the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA) in Tbilisi, said demand for hotel rooms “is already outstripping supply” as a result of recent tourism growth. She expects the supply to increase, especially in Tbilisi, which will host the Youth Olympic Festival and soccer’s 2015 UEFA Super Cup.
She said 76 hotels are planned or under construction across the country, the bulk in Tbilisi, on the Black Sea or in Samtskhe-Javakheti, an area to the south offering spas and skiing. Many planned four- and five-star properties continue to be concentrated on the Black Sea, where Batumi is slated for a Kempinski next year and a Hilton and Holiday Inn in 2014.
Promoting in the U.S.
Kvrivishvili said the GNTA “is starting to enter the U.S. market.” It rented a large booth at ASTA’s trade show in Los Angeles this fall to raise awareness of the destination, and it hosted an event for travel agents in Brooklyn, N.Y. She said the GNTA will continue promoting at trade fairs and hosting fam trips.
Georgian-born Vera Pearson Sagareishvili, managing director of corporate accounts for Panorama Travel, was tapped by Georgians in the U.S. to head up promotion of the destination on a volunteer basis, since Georgia does not have a tourism office in the U.S.
Her goal, Pearson said, is “to put Georgia, the country, on the map.” She works with the GNTA by, for example, organizing events where GNTA personnel make presentations. This included the September dinner for agents in Brooklyn, which coincided with ASTA’s event.
Merging the interests of Georgia and her employer, Panorama Travel (www.panoramatravel.com), Pearson accompanied our fam trip and said she expected to lead more fams to Georgia for Panorama.
She said she also expected the GNTA to exhibit at the New York Times Travel Show early next year.
Pearson said that Panorama, an Ensemble supplier, serves the ethnic market, but “I want to go beyond that. The trend is changing, but not fast enough for me.”
She said she prepares FITs to Georgia for Panorama clients and for other agents’ clients. She would like to have groups, too, she said, especially given the improved infrastructure, which makes Georgia more marketable.
Kathy Kutrubes, owner of Boston-based operator Kutrubes Travel (www.kutrubestravel.com), said her company has offered tours that include Georgia for about eight years. This year, her publicized itineraries offered set departure dates to Georgia, combined with Armenia and Azerbaijan. She said her longer itinerary was the best seller.
Kutrubes estimated that this year she will send 25 to 30 clients who bought the Georgia packages or FITs. “Not overwhelming,” she admits, “but the business has grown steadily each year,” fueled by travelers seeking new destinations.
Kutrubes said she is revising itineraries for 2013 to go beyond “generic” sightseeing to address special interests such as cuisine, wine and hiking.
Another attraction is a growing interest in Georgian chant, which like Gregorian chant is a polyphonic sacred music with ancient Byzantine roots. John Graham, an academic specializing in Georgian chants, leads an annual monastery tour (www.georgianchant.org). It attracts members of Eastern Orthodox religions as well as well-traveled Americans interested in the culture, Graham said. He occasionally operates tours with special focuses such as wine. Agents could sell the tours, he said, but the rates are net.
Rick and Loretta Herrington, owners and principals of the American Georgian Travel Group (AGTG) (www.agtg.us), with offices in Fairfax, Va., and Tbilisi, next year will operate their first Georgia-only tours. AGTG operated an agent fam tour this fall and is considering a second in the spring.
Loretta Herrington said AGTG would team up with other operators to include more countries. AGTG is creating three itineraries, for six, nine and 12 days, with the shortest focused on wine.
“Our market research indicates the clients will be high-end and people interested in new destinations, new culture, food [and] history,” she said.
The Herringtons were presenters at a Travel Weekly webinar earlier this year that attracted 700 participants and an unusually large number of questions.
The fam experience
The half-dozen agents on the Panorama fam agreed that clients would likely want to combine Georgia with another destination.
Yael Klein, a travel consultant with Travel Outside the Box in Teaneck, N.J., said that given the fact that her clientele are often Israel-bound and asking for a second destination, she expects to pair Georgia with Israel.
“I will pitch the wine, food, religion, scenery, warm people and [the fact that Georgia is] not too expensive.”
For Elena and Igor Yasno, born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, Georgia and its Black Sea coast have always loomed as exotic and desirable.
For them, client prospects include “former Soviets with a long interest in Georgia and older, adventurous people who want new stuff and have an interest in culture” -- people who “want spice and an unusual story to tell.”
Elena Yasno’s agency, Lenka Traveler in Calabasas, Calif., specializes in unusual destinations and events.
“Most likely I could only do this as a group,” she said. “And I would lead the group, certainly the first time.”
Igor Yasno provides marketing and technological support, which includes a blog highlighting their experiences.
Priscilla Taylor, a travel consultant with Around the Globe Travel based in Huntington Beach, Calif., said her most likely candidates for Georgia are “those who have been everywhere and have [moved] off the beaten path.”