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On the Black Sea, Georgia rebrands as a holiday haven from the pandemic

A view of the Bridge of Peace, a steel and glass construction over the Kura River in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Feb. 17. (Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Put aside the ancient vineyards, the ski resorts and Black Sea beaches. The country of Georgia has a new tourism pitch: a place to take a break from the pandemic.

Georgia’s response to the novel coronavirus is a relative success story: 746 confirmed cases, 576 of whom have recovered, and 12 deaths. Now it wants to parlay that into a holiday draw.

Georgia is far from alone in trying to reinvent itself for tourism in the wake of covid-19. But the South Caucasus nation, tucked between Turkey and Russia, offers a look into some of the emerging strategies, such as promoting low infection rates and being selective about who gets in.

“We have to put up with the fact that we may not get as many tourists as we did last year, but we should add this competitive advantage to our traditional competitive advantages, such as our history, our 8,000 years of winemaking, our cuisine, our culture and hospitality,” Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said recently.

Georgia is among the first wave of countries cautiously restarting their tourism industries even as coronavirus concerns linger for both potential travelers and destinations.

When Iceland reopens its borders June 15, it will require all visitors to either take a test for the coronavirus, agree to a two-week quarantine or present official documentation of a recent negative test. Regardless of which option they choose, tourists will have to download a contact-tracing app.

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Every international visitor to Greece, which is opening its borders July 1, will undergo a health screening, which includes a rapid coronavirus test. Nightlife is expected to remain shuttered; small-group outdoor activities are recommended to tourists instead.

Counting cases

When Georgia reopens its borders on July 1, it won’t be for everyone. It is instead looking to identify what it calls peer countries — those in “a more or less similar epidemiological situation,” Economy Minister Natia Turnava said.

Gakharia enlisted the country’s ambassadors to be the chief marketers to their host countries, pitching what he is calling a “safe corridor” with Georgia to establish direct flights between them. Israel, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Greece and the Baltic states are expected to be among the first countries on Georgia’s list.

It is unclear when Georgia will permit travelers from the United States, which has the most confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the world.

Tourists from some countries may be required to show proof of a negative coronavirus test in advance, while those from others may not be, Turnava said.

“If we open to just anyone, it means to destroy our safety in one day,” she added. “Unfortunately, not all countries are on equal positions. However, we do believe that, upon battling with covid[-19], more and more countries will join our safe corridors.”

Visiting Georgia wasn’t always considered “safe,” especially as tensions escalated with its powerful northern neighbor Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Twelve years ago, the two countries were embroiled in a brief war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin temporarily banned flights to Georgia and recommended that Russian tourists there return home after protesters tried to storm the Parliament building in Tbilisi, furious that a Russian member of parliament had given a speech from the speaker’s chair.

In November, protesters blockaded the Parliament building in demonstrations over electoral reform that brought tens of thousands to the streets.

'New reality of tourism'

But Georgia has seen a steady increase in tourists, from just under 3 million visitors in 2001 to more than 9 million last year. Turnava said the tourism sector accounts for nearly 12 percent of the country’s GDP.

For us, it is a kind of activity which is very close to our historical traditions,” she said. “We used to say that guests come from God.”

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For a country that made headlines for its domestic turmoil in the past, its handling of the coronavirus revealed a surprising public trust in the government.

Georgia was aggressive in its approach, closing schools after it had just three confirmed cases. It monitored the virus’s spread, suspending direct flights with “hot spots,” and installing health screenings at airports and at the borders. Around 7,000 hotel rooms were used to quarantine citizens who returned home after the first week of March.

“This process has accumulated valuable experience and is an example of great flexibility for the Georgian hospitality sector to adjust with the new norms,” Turnava said. “That’s why we don't need additional time to adapt our tourist industry. That’s why we’re saying that Georgia might be one of the safest, because it’s all about following protocols.”

In a 2016 episode of his CNN show “Parts Unknown,” Anthony Bourdain described Georgia as a place most Americans wouldn’t be able to locate on a map. With traditional European getaways such as Italy and France some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, Georgia’s promise of safety could stand out to a Westerners who may not have considered a trip there before, said Natalia Kvachantiradze, chair of the Georgia Tourism Association.

Georgia will attempt to appeal to post-coronavirus travelers by pushing outdoor activities more conducive to distancing precautions, such as visiting the wine region or the national parks. The country is also labeling some resorts as “green zones,” keeping them exclusive to guests who want to be reassured about privacy and sanitary conditions.

“We are in a new reality of tourism, and our country’s decision is to promote new destinations and new tourist products,” Kvachantiradze said. “When you’re traveling and want to rest, it’s important to feel free and to feel healthy and feel safe.”

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