While ‘hidden gem’ is one of the most hackneyed clichés in hospitality, Georgia seems to have been hiding in plain sight.
Situated down in the south-eastern corner of Europe, on the edge of Asia, it is away from the major tourist trails, and has for this reason occasionally been overlooked.
This is now beginning to change.
With its European air, low-prices, strong transport connections, and thriving capital, Georgia has a lot to offer the international traveller.
More than six million guests passed through Georgia last year
It has taken a while for the country to become an overnight success.
Years of patient work have been put in by the local tourism board, private investors, and their international partners to create the conditions for the sector to flourish.
These plans are now coming to fruition.
As Amiran Ivanidze, chief operating officer, Georgian Convention & Exhibition Bureau explains: “We have been working very hard over the past seven years to promote Georgia internationally and, as you can see, it has paid off.
“In 2010 there were just upward of two million international arrivals to Georgia, while this climbed to a record 6.3 million in 2016.
“There is more on the horizon, we are aiming for seven million in 2017,” adds Ivanidze.
The cornerstone of this growth has been Tourism Strategy 2025, launched in 2015, which details government commitments to growing the sector each year.
For example, Georgia has been working to loosen its visa regime in order to welcome more guests.
Visa free travel is now on offer to visitors from 97 countries, including major outbound markets in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and the Schengen area.
“The biggest success story so far has opening up to citizens and residents of the GCC,” continues Ivanidze.
“When we did that we saw a very big increase in the numbers of tourists coming from that region.”
For those requiring paperwork, there is an e-Visa Portal.
A visa costs as little as $20, takes five minutes, and requires only an image and passport scan.
Georgia offers a striking mix of the old and the new
This work by the public sector is also being matched by private initiative, especially in the accommodation sector.
With a host of new properties – not least the Rixos Tbilisi – set to open over the next 12 months, hotel investors have taken note of the uptick in demand and are responding accordingly.
Tbilisi also has a lot to offer the millennial traveller – those with a little more time and an eye for lifestyle-led properties.
Rooms Hotels - a young and independent lifestyle hotel brand based in Georgia – has taken the Design Hotels portfolio into the country, for example, while Vinotel is the epitome of sophistication in the centre of the city.
Georgia is now considered one safest destinations on Europe
Georgia is located on the coast of the Black Sea, surrounded by Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia.
Its place on the old Silk Road has endowed the country with a rich mixture of different cultures over the centuries.
Today this fortuitous geography means Georgia is within three hours flying time from Western Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, with flights arriving at the country’s three airports - Batumi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi.
Major markets in the CIS are even closer, with some just under two hours away.
Tbilisi, naturally, welcomes the majority of flights, with Georgian Airways flying to a host of destinations across Europe and the Middle East.
Further afield, China Southern flies to Urumqi, Air Astana connects to Aktau, Almaty, and Kazakh capital Astana, and both flyDubai and Qatar Airways offer Middle Eastern routes.
These are among the 23 airlines operating into the country, offering direct flights to 28 cities.
At the same time, Kutaisi has become a major hub airport for budget carrier Wizz Air – a boon for cost conscience international travellers.
Turn on the bright lights
So what do travellers do once they are in Georgia? Drink, it seems!
“Georgia does not go without wine – they are interconnected,” continues Ivanidze
“We are the cradle of wine; wine making history started in Georgia 8,000 years ago and we have an unbroken record since this time.
“The way wine is made here is unique.
“What we do is take the grape, bury it in pots and use the natural fermentation process – a very organic system.
“This is so unique for Georgian culture that UNESCO has added the technique to its list of intangible heritage; it is key to Georgian culture and history.”
This industry is focused on the Kakheti region to the east of the country, where the qvevri (clay pot) technique is practiced.
For example, Chateau Zegaani is a great spot to find out more about the wonderful traditions of Georgian wine making.
Georgian wine has been a major asset to the tourism sector
Georgian cuisine is also world-famous, drawing from the cultural diversity of the country.
Meats, spices, and vegetables have been taken from Persian, Arabic and European traditions to create something unique to the country.
“A beautiful mix of cultures combined into one feast,” quips Ivanidze.
Upper Svaneti, in particular, draws guests.
Claiming to be the highest European settlement point, at over 2,000 meters above sea-level, the locals still live in accordance with historic tradition, welcoming guests into their homes during a stay.
“If you walk around the city people will invite you to stay at their house, feed you. They might not let you go for a couple of days!” laughs Ivanidze.
The two most popular are Gudauri and Bakuriani, but both are very different.
Gudauri is for winter sports, heli-skiing, and is considered an active destination – but at affordable prices.
Bakuriani is more of a family destination, offering a village feel on the site of the old Olympic training facilities built during the Soviet period.
Georgian food has a growing global reputation
The capital itself, Tbilisi, is also seeing a surge in interest.
The city’s architecture draws again from a range of European and Asian cultures, with the Tbilisi Opera House, built in a Persian style, sitting just 20 metres from the European-designed Rustaveli Theatre.
“It is truly unique; in other countries the old and new is separated; here we like to keep it mixed up,” explains Ivanidze.
Finally, on the coast, Batumi has recently been rebuilt, with a lot of investment flowing into tourist infrastructure.
Here visitors will find designer hotels sitting on a ten kilometre boulevard, alongside cafes, boutiques, and plentiful casinos.
“If ever if you got lucky and won a lot of money and carried it out the casino, nobody would bother you,” Ivanidze, illustrating the safety of the destination.
With so much on offer – expect to be hearing a lot more about tourism in Georgia in the near future.
To find out more about visit Georgia, head over to the official tourism website.