Georgia: Popular with Russian tourists, despite political tensions
More and more countries are closing their borders to Russians, allowing neither entry nor transit. Georgia still allows both, but the decades of political tension are palpable in the country, reports Benjamin Restle.
Dressed in a slick white linen shirt and beige trousers, Georgian tour guide Levan Dvali saunters over as I wait on a shady bench in Tbilisi's elegant April 9th Park. It's comfortingly quiet here, a mere stone's throw from the capital's bustling Shota Rustaveli Avenue, which is teeming with tourists and locals. This well-kept park — named after the Tbilisi tragedy of April 9, 1989, when Soviet forces brutally dispersed and killed Georgian pro-independence protesters, provides the perfect backdrop to chat about the country's complicated relationship with Russia, and Russian tourists. (Also read: Russian vacationers flock to non-European destinations)
38-year-old Dvali, who began working as a guide in 2017, says Russians love spending their holidays in Georgia. "It's one of the best destinations for them: Black Sea, good food, hospitality," he tells me proudly. Dvila used to show Russian holidaymakers around his home country but recalls disagreements with some who refused to believe the Soviet Union's influence on Georgia had been anything but benevolent. He has no issue with Russian visitors per se — his own sister-in-law and cousins live in Russia — though feels some regard Georgia as little more than a pleasantly affordable holiday destination.
Why Russians are drawn to Georgia
According to the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the number of Russians visiting Georgia has been growing steadily since 2011. In 2019, one and a half million people traveled there, generating about $700 million (€687 million) in revenue.
Georgia's dramatic Caucasus mountains, verdant valleys, beautiful Black Sea beaches, diverse cuisine and wine make it an attractive holiday destination. On top of that, Georgians are famous for their hospitality.
All that explains why Russians are drawn to the country. But the two also share a long history: Georgia was once part of the Russian Empire, and then a Soviet republic.
A rocky relationship
Russo-Georgian relations have, however, become strained in recent years. In 2008, both countries fought a brief war over South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway province in Georgia's north. Russian troops remain stationed there, as well as in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Its forces now occupy 20% of Georgian territory.
In the summer of 2019, when violent protests erupted in Tbilisi over what some deemed undue Russian interference in Georgian affairs, Russia suspended direct flights to the country. At the time, Russian officials urged their compatriots to leave Georgia, and advised against traveling there. The flight ban remains in place to this day. The number of Russian tourists in Georgia subsequently plummeted, dealing a serious blow to the tourism industry.
Russians keep coming
Nevertheless, Georgia's land border with Russia remains open. To enter, Russians — like EU citizens — don't need a visa. While Georgia is still accessible, more and more European states are restricting entry for Russian tourists. As of this Monday (19.09.2022), Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Poland, began making it harder for Russians to enter, including those with a valid Schengen visa. There are exceptions for travelers on humanitarian grounds and dissidents, but the vast majority of Russians must enter the EU via other routes, for example by flying from Georgia.
With Georgia's land border open, many Russians keep streaming into the country. And the streets, restaurants, bars, and museums of Tbilisi are full of Russian-speakers — though how many of them are in exile or ordinary holidaymakers is not always clear.
During a leisurely evening dinner in the capital's charming old town, I strike up a conversation with 38-year-old Fedor Portnykh sitting at the neighboring table with his parents. In immaculate English, the jovial Muscovite tells me he left Russia for Prague after Putin invaded Ukraine in February. Now, he is visiting Georgia to meet his parents on "neutral ground" as he calls it, as he deems Russia a "prison" where free speech is curtailed. He says his parents, who still live in Moscow, traveled to Georgia by bus, waiting many hours to pass Russian and Georgian border checks.
Despite Georgia's difficult relationship with Russia, and a broad feeling of solidarity among Georgians towards embattled Ukraine, Portnykh says he senses no animosity towards Russian-speakers. In fact, he tells me, older Georgians had been very polite and have even spoken Russian, though younger Georgians had been more reserved.
Many in Georgia's tourist industry warmly welcome Russian holidaymakers — but despise the Russian president. Marika Kopadze, an energetic mother of two, who runs Tbisli's City Heart Hotel with her husband, tells me "we always try to be decent." Then she adds: "But what about [Russian President] Putin? Never, never in Georgia, will we love him!"
Most Georgians, it seems, share her view.
Not everyone wants to talk politics
Several days later, hiding away from the merciless midday sun at a cafe in Mtskheta, Georgia's ancient capital, I speak to a friendly Russian couple enjoying their lunch. They tell me they're from the Ural mountains and traveled here by car — a distance of roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles). They're also very fond of Georgian food, they tell me, as they tuck into their order of Khinkali, or Georgian dumplings.
When I reveal I'm a journalist and ask them about the war in Ukraine and whether they feel welcome in Georgia, the mood changes. The man weighs his words carefully, telling me "we have our opinion, but we do not want to voice it." He tells me he is suspicious of DW and most other media outlets, including those in Russia. He also says he finds the sanctions against Russia "absolutely incomprehensible."
I sense the two have no desire whatsoever to continue talking about politics, so we quickly return to praising Georgian fare and enjoying the rest of the afternoon.
Edited by Elizabeth Grenier