This article first appeared on Condé Nast Traveller.
By now you’ve read the love letters about the zany amber wines and ooey-gooey cheese breads, about the whisper-quiet monasteries and remote villages lost in time. Whatever it was that first caught your eye about Georgia, it probably wasn’t a cheap flight.
Enter Ryanair, Europe’s best-known low-cost carrier, which announced in August that this corner of the Caucasus would be its next destination. The flights will kick off with Bologna-Kutaisi, Marseille-Kutaisi, and Milan-Tbilisi in November, followed by Cologne-Tbilisi in April 2020. We found flights from Marseille to Kutaisi (4 hours and 20 minutes) for as cheap as $20, making Georgia a feasible add-on to your next Euro trip.
Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and main airline hub, is a non-negotiable stop for first-time visitors, thanks to its storybook old town, raucous sakhlebi (beer and dumpling halls), edgy club scene, and terrific museums. Kutaisi, Georgia’s third-largest city, is a feisty, charmingly ramshackle warren packed with honking Ladas and hollering street vendors. An ideal base for adventures farther afield, it’s situated between Tbilisi and the Black Sea and the gateway to Samegrelo, Georgia’s unsung food capital known for its pepper pastes (ajika) and stretchy cheese grits (elarji), and Svaneti, the untamed mountain region that lays claim to UNESCO-protected watchtowers and Europe’s third-highest peak, Mount Shkhara (altitude: 18,510 feet).
Ryanair’s arrival is big news for a country of 3.7 million people that’s just hitting its tourism stride. To understand why, it helps to know a bit of history. A decade ago, Georgia was hardly a blip on most travelers’ radars, still reeling from the brief yet bloody Russo-Georgian War. There weren’t enough beds for tens of thousands of Ossetian refugees, let alone for busloads of fanny-packed foreigners.
In 2009, Georgia received some 1.5 million international visitors; 2019 will see an estimated 9 million. One might assume that kvevri wine and unspoiled nature, and maybe the occasional glitzy hotel opening, lured the masses to Georgia, but above all else, it was the work of the Georgian National Tourism Association, or GNTA, that really moved the needle. The agency rolled out global ad campaigns, hosted thousands of journalists, and incentivized local communities to claim their piece of the proverbial khachapuri by building guest houses and creating services for tourists.
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