07.Sep .2019 21:10

CN Traveller - How Ryanair's Cheap Flights to Georgia Will Change Travel to the Country

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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.

Georgia’s end goal isn’t welcoming millions more visitors per year—it’s strengthening ties with Europe and the West. In July, Putin banned direct flights from Russia to Georgia in response to anti-Kremlin protests in Tbilisi, solidifying the need for Georgia to look west, not north, for untapped tourism markets. Striking a deal with a major European carrier like Ryanair, then, is a success story as political as it is economic.

“Since we don’t share a land border with Europe, we need as many air links as possible,” says George Chogovadze, CEO of United Airports of Georgia, who spearheaded the negotiations with Ryanair. “We’re excited that Ryanair chose Georgia as the first country to do business with in the Caucasus.” They’re not the only budget airline in town. “In 2012, WizzAir, Ryanair’s competitor, started here with one route,” says Chogovadze. “By 2020, we estimate that the airline will service 42 destinations from Georgia.”

There’s little doubt that the new flights will be a boon to Georgia’s tourism-reliant economy, but what effect will they have on its fragile ecosystems, ancient customs, endangered languages, architectural integrity, and everything else that makes Georgia, well, Georgia?

Mariam Kvrivishvili, head of the GNTA, isn’t concerned about overtourism yet. “Our long-term vision for tourism is quality over quantity, and we’re committed to that,” she says. “We are happily in a position right now where we don’t see anything being put in jeopardy by welcoming more tourists.” She added that locals the country over are taking advantage of free, government-funded hospitality training courses.

For the most part, Georgian tour operators share Kvrivishvili’s optimism. Daria Kholodilina, who runs a popular wine-focused tour company called Trails and Wines, pushes back on the stereotype that budget fliers don’t contribute to local economies. “Many of my guests spend less on tickets so they can better invest in cultural and gastronomic experiences,” she says. For Kholodilina, the key to staving off overtourism is spreading the love: “Don’t just seek out wine in Sighnaghi, nature in Kazbegi, and history in Uplistsikhe like everybody else,” she says. “Instead, try drinking wine in Ateni, hiking in Lagodekhi National Park or Truso Gorge, and getting a dose of culture in Pankisi Valley.”

Kartlos Chabashvili, founder of the adventure tour company InterGeorgia Travel, thinks Ryanair’s timing couldn’t be better. “Fewer Russian visitors because of Putin’s ban means we need new markets, and Ryanair will bring those,” he said. “Ultimately, more tourists means more people like me can start a restaurant, open a guest house, or buy jeeps to rent—things that grow the local economy and improve livelihoods.”