(photo credit: Bernard Dichek)
On June 20, a girl in the capital of Georgia (Tbilisi) was walking home from work. She passed by thousands of demonstrators at the Parliament building expressing their anger at the Georgian government for allowing a Russian State Duma deputy, Sergei Gavrilov, to sit in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat while addressing the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy.
As she walked, she heard the calls for the speaker of the Georgian Parliament to step down. She saw hundreds of youth holding “20% of Georgia is occupied by Russia” posters and then she got hit by a rubber bullet in the eye. The rest of Georgia then saw her bloodied face on the phone screens as they scrolled their social media accounts frantically trying to follow the news of the demonstrations.
Maiko Gomuri, 19, was one of 200 injured, many with eye injuries, as police started shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators protesting Russian occupation and Russian MPs’ visits. As a result, the speaker of the Parliament resigned, presumably acknowledging the mistake, but without a word of apology.
On June 21, Georgia woke up to the scenes of bloodied youth from the night before and came out to the streets in thousands. They still stand, day and night, protesting Russian occupation of their country and government’s excessive use of force, with a demand of early parliamentary elections.
In response to Georgians demonstrating against the Russian occupation and Georgia’s current government’s incompetence and use of force, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s airlines to stop flying to Georgia (as of July 8) and for tour operators to bring vacationers back to Russia due to the supposed threats to Russian citizens.
Leave it to the Kremlin to make rational decisions. This is not new to Georgia, as Putin put an embargo on Georgian products in 2006 with the aim of crushing the thriving Georgian economy. Today, Russian tourists account for about 20% of the total number of visitors (8 million people) but spend the least per capita. Tourism in Georgia has been growing every year, with sites such as Airbnb naming Georgia’s Black Sea destination, Batumi, as one of the top searched destinations in 2019.
In reality, what the Russian president is afraid of is Russians visiting Georgia in millions (which they are doing already) and finding out that a post-Soviet country (Georgia dates back to 12th century BC, with a short period as a Soviet state from 1921 to 1991) can be transparent, corruption-free and economically diverse and thriving. To have Russians return and demand the same freedoms and transparencies as in the neighboring country is viewed as dangerous.
After all, Georgians on Russian state channels are portrayed as street criminals that kids should be afraid of after dark. The only thing you should be afraid of while vacationing in Georgia, Ilya Zhegulev, a Russian tourist writes on social media, is overindulging in the delicious Georgian khachapuri (cheese bread).
In 2007, after the embargo on Georgian products, including Georgian wine, by the Kremlin, Georgia’s economy grew by 12.5%. This was due to Georgian manufacturers finding new export markets, such as the EU. Those markets are more demanding of quality standards, resulting in many producers struggling to meet the demands at first, but, once they complied, seeing much higher returns.
The same is true of the tourism industry. The first couple of months will be tough, as Russians are canceling bookings by the thousands. The world can show that it stands by Georgia and against Kremlin’s aggression by booking holidays in Georgia. It’s a beautiful, welcoming country with a winemaking tradition dating back 8,000 years, a thriving fashion scene, thanks to designers such as Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia (who hails from Georgia), subtropical beach destinations and mountainous routes you can explore on horseback.
Starting this week, in response to the blockade, Georgians all over the country are opening their Airbnb homes for free to vacationers from across the world, and Georgian businesses are stepping up to cover the costs of charter flights to get them to the country.
Putin believes that by banning flights to Georgia he will sink the Georgian economy. By vacationing in Georgia, you can prove him otherwise.The writer is Canadian and the former minister of economy of Georgia. She is a board member, WEF Global Future Council on Development Finance, and an AsiaGlobal Fellow, University of Hong Kong.
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