At the site of Georgia’s largest functioning cathedral, a leading tourist attraction a short drive from the capital, a few trinket sellers have set up stalls but there are no signs of buyers.
”Tourism has been dead since the start of the war. There’s been nobody,” says Lili Kostua (57), who has been selling souvenirs and religious symbols in Mtskheta, the ancient Georgian capital, for 15 years.
In front of her stands the medieval Unesco-listed Sveti-Tskoveli cathedral, which means ”life-giving column”. Lili depends on it to draw the tourists from Tbilisi who buy her bracelets, crucifixes and postcards.
”Before the fighting, there were lots of people from lots of different countries. Now I can’t remember what a foreign language sounds likes,” jokes the mother of one, smiling despite her hardship.
The car park next to her is nearly empty. Usually there are buses, she says.
The Georgian-Russian conflict, which began on August 7, has dealt a devastating blow to the country’s fledgling tourist industry in the middle of the summer season.
Travel warnings are in place, holidays have been cancelled and those tourists in the country when fighting broke out were advised to leave.
Beka Jakeli, acting head of the government’s Tourism Department, says the number of foreign tourists more than tripled from 55 000 in 2003 to 194 000 in 2007. In the first six months of this year, 117 000 were registered.
His department has toured foreign tourism trade fairs and hired leading British public relations agency Saatchi & Saatchi last year, which led to a branding campaign centred on the slogan ”Europe starts here”.
”Obviously the conflict will have a very negative impact,” he says.
A favourite holiday destination for the elite during Soviet times, Georgia’s potential was constrained by political instability and violence after the country’s independence in 1991.
In recent years, however, its snow-capped mountains, Black Sea coastline, charming capital and the renowned hospitality of its people has earned it a name among travellers looking for something out of the ordinary.
The Lonely Planet guide book describes it as ”the most consistently beautiful country of the former Soviet Union”. In the capital, Tbilisi, at least three high-end hotels are under construction.
Manuka Burduli founded a Tbilisi-based travel company in 2003 looking to cash in on Georgia’s growing reputation by offering biking, trekking and rafting tours, mainly to tourists from Israel and Germany.
After buying new equipment before the summer, he and his seven full-time employees and 10 part-time guides now face an uncertain future.
”It’s a catastrophe,” he says of the conflict. ”Everyone has cancelled. The season is over.”
For the future, he says the return of people to Georgia will depend on whether foreign embassies lift their travel warnings.
Help for him and others struggling with the aftermath of fighting could come from the government, which promises an aggressive overseas marketing campaign as soon as the conflict is resolved.
For Jakeli, the cloud of war might even have a silver lining.
”Before the conflict started, only 2% to 3% of the world had heard of Georgia,” he said. ”At present, most of the world’s population know about the country.” — Sapa-AFP