So, I asked my fried Hicham where he was planning his Eid Al Adha vacations, and the response without a second thought was “Why, Georgia, of course.” This is the same Hicham who was iffy about this first Tbilisi visit in March this year, fidgeting with brochures of itineraries, talking to several travel agents, spending days planning before all his concerns about an unknown destination were taken care of. Cut to the present, the word ‘Georgia’ is an easy sell in any vacation hunter’s mind.
When I spoke to associates in Georgia’s tourism industry, they were upbeat and they are thrilled to receive more and more queries. But amidst this dream journey for the tourism sector, there is an intriguing factor: the Middle East, and the overwhelming interest it has shown for Georgia.
The country’s 2016 figures show, that 61,000 people from the Middle East visited Georgia in the first eight months of 2016, which is a 72 per cent increase over the same period the previous year. Many Middle Eastern visitors came from the United Arab Emirates (14,115) and Saudi Arabia (15,570). Two countries stood out, Qatar and Kuwait.
Georgia saw a 300 per cent increase in visitors from Qatar in the first eight months of 2016, nearly 67 per cent increase in visitors Kuwait. Wataniya, one of the three national airlines of Kuwait has announced that it will come back into business by flying it’s re-introductory flight to, guess where? Tbilisi, of course.
So, what has Georgia done right that has neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia looking over their shoulders? Well, to be fair, all three countries have pushed their tourism appeal through various strategic initiatives specially with the travel industry of the Middle East. But Georgia seems to be holding the trump card. It provides visa on arrival service to GCC residents, that means short term planning for family vacations, or that extended weekend that props from nowhere can now be settled with a short three-hour flight into history-laden, nature-rich Georgia.
Infrastructure may still have lots of room for improvement but Georgia is working on it at an urgent pace, it’s airport modernisation is underway. It’s hotel listing is always expanding, it’s price point and service offering is very attractive. And we have not yet started on the naturally delightful destinations within two hours of the capital that can match every name you can put on your Europe bucketlist.
Food remains an important part of the tourism selling point, and in that too, Georgia is blissfully blessed. It’s dumplings, cheese, and fresh produce from the fields and rivers can set any appetite in motion, such is the powerful variety of aroma and flavours served on the table.
Georgia boasts of stories, and it is these stories that will keep drawing a variety of tourists from the Middle East. Stories around food, how their Khinkali was inspired by the Mongols when they were marching towards Europe, how their wines and cheese are derived from long-held recipes practiced and perfected at monasteries, stories of Turkish, Russian and Iranian influences. There is something for every mind and heart.
As a transit point, my colleagues from the industry will take heart from the fact that India, one of the rising giants of outbound travel has also felt the allure, the magnetic effect, courtesy Georgia. In the first six months of 2017, India’s tourist visitation of Georgia has shot by 133 per cent over the same period in 2016. Middle East carriers have been the biggest gainers of this spike.
Time for the enterprising consultants out there to connect the dots, perhaps have friends and family from India and GCC meet in Georgia over great food, cultural tours and a memorable retreat into the lap of unspoilt nature.
I am waiting to hear your Georgia success story.