2020 June-July Analysis Featured

Tourism trends in an (almost) post-COVID Georgia

The global tourism industry will have to get creative in the coming months to stay on its feet. Not missing a beat, some Georgian tourism players are already rolling out new products and offerings to attract and reassure tourists.

Despite hopes July and August would bring much-missed tourists back to Georgia, the global epidemiological situation forced the government to extend border closures until October 1, and summer break 2020 has turned out to be more of a staycation than a vacation for tourists who would otherwise have flooded Georgia’s Black Sea beaches, towering mountains and Tbilisi’s bars and restaurants.

Tourism accounts for almost 10% of the nation’s GDP, and for many Georgians is a lifeline, which has made the blow doubly difficult. However, the tourism industry has proved resilient so far, and innovative to boot. Investor.ge sat down with a number of industry professionals to find out what trends may emerge in the post-coronavirus tourism industry in the country, and what new product offerings have arisen because of the altered circumstances.

Ecotourism in for a boost

“Ecotourism, agrotourism and cultural tourism”, says Elene Kekelidze, head of Discovery Georgia tour agency. “That’s what we’re expecting to see more of [once borders open]. Big cities and crowded destinations will likely make people feel a little nervous, they will want to get out, be in the countryside.”

This is part of a larger trend that has been developing in the Georgian tourism industry in recent years, Kekelidze says, in which tourists have been discovering that Georgia is about much more than just Tbilisi and Batumi. “Since about 2010, travelers have stopped associating the country merely with the capital city, Tbilisi, thanks to the Georgian National Tourism Association’s promotion of the country at eco- and cultural tourism exhibitions. Georgia has diverse nature, and this will attract people looking for a little bit of everything, and to enjoy themselves outside of cities.”

Head of the Ecotourism Association of Georgia Natalia Bakhtadze confirms the trend: “We expect the regions to further emerge as tourist destinations in the post-pandemic reality. Batumi and Tbilisi are no longer so dominant in the industry, much in part thanks to residents of these cities themselves, who feel the two cities have become so crowded, and are now looking for places to escape. In doing so, they share their experiences online, and people are finding out more about Georgia’s rural offerings.”

Bakhtadze predicts tourists will begin focusing on seeing more in smaller areas, rather than trying to cover as much ground as possible. “In the post-COVID period, tourists will want to buy local, eat local, and explore the areas they’re staying in; there will be less trekking across the country, and we predict they will instead tend to do day tours around the area”, Bakhtadze says.

Feel Local

One new initiative that grew out of the coronavirus pandemic, Shinaurulad – or its English name, Feel Local – plans to capitalize on an increased interest in Georgia’s rural areas and help local residents involved in the tourism industry benefit as well.

It was founded with the help of a rapid response grant made available by the Keda Leader program funded by the EU ENPARD Program, and managed by CENN and the Local Action Group in Keda, to help rural communities affected by the coronavirus.

Shinaurulad plans to promote the tourist potential of rural areas in Georgia, starting with Keda municipality in Adjara, through the use of digital storytelling. Shinaurulad founder Tiko Gholadze explains: “We’re training and mentoring 25 participants from Keda municipality. Some of them are newcomers in tourism, some already have experience. We help them create digital content about their offerings, their day-to-day lives, and then we advertise their locations on our social media platforms.”

The aim is to offer full-package experiences to tourists – not just a roof over their heads for the night. For instance, one beneficiary of the program offers guests to participate in a range of activities from his daily life, such as tobacco and alcohol production, cooking Adjarian dishes, visiting a shepherd’s lean-to and picking fruits and vegetables.

Business travel

The business and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibitions) segments of the tourism industry are also experiencing the development of new trends, of which one will be greener travel and a demand for greener, cleaner spaces.

President of the Georgian Tourism Business Administration Amiran Ivanidze says

Georgia can make use of its achievement of stemming the spread of the virus to become even more present in the post-COVID business tourism market.

“In the post-COVID world, people will be looking into what destinations that had lower cases, where the situation is being monitored, and where the ‘cleaner’ destinations are.

We should be grateful that Georgia has done comparatively well in this regard, and this might put Georgia on the map as a clean and safe, COVID-free destination for business travelers”, Ivanidze says, noting destinations such as Tskaltubo, in Western Georgia, or Abastumani, on the southern slopes of the Meskheti Range, have serious potential to attract conferences, corporate getaways and other meetings where organizers might want to avoid the potential risks of big cities.

Ivanidze does not think business travel will suffer seriously once the pandemic has passed:

“People will still need to travel for business. The coronavirus epidemic has proven that virtual networking and communication spaces are useful in times of need, but they are no substitute for the real thing”, he says, adding that only a small portion of business travel may be deemed superfluous in the future – such as long-haul flights to deliver a single speech at an event, and other similar ‘extravagances’ – and that there are few signs pointing at a decrease in demand for business travel.

“We’re already receiving requests [to organize meetings, conferences] for 2021 and 2022 from European clients, because they like to plan things a couple of years ahead”, Ivanidze says, noting: “Even this year, people were still asking permission to hold domestic market events in August and September.”

As for business and luxury hotels, they’ll be seeking to reassure guests and demonstrate that all precautions are being taken, says Marriott Georgia General Manager Cameron McNeillie.

“We can’t wrap ourselves up in plastic forever, but what we can do is our best to make sure cleanliness standards exceed basic demands in order to give guests that feeling of safety and security, and they appreciate the evidence of these extra efforts”, McNeillie says.

Attention to hygiene and cleanliness doesn’t end in the lobby – it extends to hotel rooms as well, McNeillie notes, where the Marriott has done what it can to minimize guests’ interactions with objects that generally experience higher traffic.

“The room service menus have been taken out of the room and are now available on the TV. Our restaurant menus will be available via QR codes, we use electrostatic sprayers to make sure every nook and crevice is disinfected and disinfectant stations are accessible throughout the hotel”, McNeillie says.

While most tourism businesses were stretched for customers during the pandemic, some were able to find outlets for the activities they’d normally conduct live during the pandemic itself – online.

Irma Kodua is the director of Grata DMC, a company which organizes corporate team building services that took the leap and took their activities online.

“Our partner company, Catalyst, had already started implementing online team building programs, so it wasn’t hard to take the extra step. We tested the product on our own team, and it worked well. The only entertainment available at the time was the endless number of boring Zoom webinars, when people would mostly just turn off their camera and microphone and do something else, so we felt we were on to something.”

Kodua told Investor.ge that demand for the online team building experience mostly came in from abroad, as “the Georgian conception of team building still relies heavily around food and drink.”

One reason the team building experiences were so in demand, Kodua says, was due to the fact that companies wanted to foster the ability of their employees to work remotely.

“Some of the team building exercises put emphasis on skills that are needed in a remote work environment. For example, one game might ask participants to network with one another to receive all the information they need, and put all the bits and pieces together. This helps to improve communication within the team in the virtual world.”

New markets, new challenges

Until borders open and tourists begin returning, there is domestic tourism to prop up the tourism industry, but this alone will not be enough in the long run.

Discovery Georgia’s Kekelidze believes the country will have to turn its sights towards new markets in order to survive the post-corona slump.

“While the European market was important for Georgian tourism industry before the coronavirus, today it would be difficult to talk about Europe as a lucrative market, for now, at least. We will have to continue studying the trends and discovering new markets.”

This must be done quickly, she says, as one of the biggest problems tourism is quickly becoming not the coronavirus itself, but industry demotivation:

“One of the most important things during this pandemic is to keep our chin up and remember that it will pass, and at some point things will go back to the way they were. It’s dangerous if we don’t. The entire industry is demotivated now, and we see players dropping out of the field. This is dangerous, because over the long-term this could seriously harm the industry as a whole”, Kekelidze warns.

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