Israel-loving Georgian economy minister promises as tourist
Kobalia: It’s like a tasty dish. You try a little and you want more and more. I would love to come back here in the future.
By RON FRIEDMAN
After a three-day whirlwind tour in Israel, in which she met three cabinet ministers, signed two bilateral agreements, held meetings with a variety of business people and even managed to fit in some tourism, Georgian Minister of Economy Vera Kobalia came out with a decisive conclusion – she loves Israel.At 29, Kobalia is one of the youngest cabinet ministers in the world. Born in Georgia, she spent more than half her life living in Canada. She said that since taking office in June she feels like she’s been living aboard airplanes, but that she tries to split her time evenly between Tbilisi and her responsibilities abroad. This is Kobalia’s first visit to Israel, but she said she hoped to return soon.RELATED:Travel in space: Viewing the galaxy from IsraelThe rivers and the road map“It’s like a tasty dish. You try a little and you want more and more. I would love to come back here in the future, hopefully as a tourist so I won’t be so busy and will have a chance to see more of the country,” Kobalia told The Jerusalem Post at her Tel Aviv hotel earlier this week.“We have a saying in Georgia that anything really important that you want to achieve needs to be completed yesterday. I have a feeling that the same could be said here in Israel,” said Kobalia. “In general, I find that there are a lot of similarities between our two countries, things we have in common that make us the way we are. For example, both of our countries are relatively small and lack natural resources. This makes us rely on human capital and foster creativity and busy lifestyles. The benefit of not having oil and gas is that it doesn’t make you lazy.”Other similarities Kobalia identified were both countries’ strained relationships with their neighbors.“We have our neighbor to the north [Russia] who we fought a war with in 2008 and who constantly seeks to overshadow us, and you have your neighbors who you don’t always get along with either,” she said. “I don’t usually talk about politics and diplomacy, because that is not my background, but I can say that we have always been very thankful for all the support Israel has given Georgia and that we have always been supportive of Israel. As I said, we are share a lot of commonalities, we are only two hours away and Israel is an important strategic ally of Georgia.”The main achievements of Kobalia’s visit were the signing of two bilateral agreements, one a tourism agreement she signed with Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, which is intended to increase tourist traffic between the two countries, alongside information exchange, marketing activities and greater cooperation with wholesalers. The other was a flight agreement with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, which will increase air traffic between the two countries.“We are seeing growing numbers of tourists heading back and forth in recent months, and the current flight agreements are too limited,” Kobalia said. “Try and book a flight from here to Georgia and you won’t be able to find a seat. I had to wait two weeks until space opened up.”Tourism matters made up a big portion of her timetable during the visit and it may pay off. After signing the agreement with Katz, the transportation minister said that he hoped Georgia proved a suitable substitute for Turkey as an Israeli seaside destination. If that proves to be the case, Georgia can expect a boom in incoming tourism.“There are signs that indicate that that may happen,” Kobalia said. “In the last three years, tourism from Israel has grown by 100 percent every year. When someone goes to a place they like, [he or she shares] it with other people, and this is what I’m seeing happening with Israelis.”Those numbers may increase even more rapidly if Meseznikov’s stated intention of canceling visa requirements for Georgian nationals is put into effect.Kobalia’s tourism responsibilities also met her with a group of Israeli hoteliers, who she hopes may be interested in investing in Black Sea resorts.“Right now we have just the right number of rooms, but we anticipate a shortage of 10,000 rooms in 2013,” she said. “In order to encourage investment in hotels and resorts, we have created a tourism free zone on a long stretch of the coast. Anyone who submits an offer to build a hotel will receive state incentives in the form of free land and no taxes for 15 years.”Another field that is under Kobalia’s responsibility and close to her heart is the information technology and communications sector. Though her meeting with Israel’s minister of communications, Moshe Kahlon, didn’t result in a bilateral agreement, Kobalia said that it laid the groundwork for future cooperation between the hi-tech sectors in both countries.“I heard from him about some of the reforms he is advancing here and shared some of the things we are doing in Georgia,” she said. “I am a great believer in the importance of access to information, and a developed hi-tech sector enables that. One of the projects we are currently conducting involves giving a laptop to every first grader.”Kobalia hopes that this initiative will help children feel comfortable handling technology at an early age, so that they “can spread the knowledge to the rest of the population.”
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