Georgia’s growing soft power

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Traditional dance in a Tbilisi restaurant. [Georgi Gotev]

Great wines, bohemian restaurants, breath-taking landscapes, fascinating architecture and vibrant cities are Georgia’s soft power, writes Fraser Cameron.

Fraser Cameron is the director of the EU-Asia Centre, a think tank dedicated to promoting closer relations between the EU and Asia, established in 2011. He is a former British diplomat and EU official, and a visiting professor at several universities in Asia.

More and more people have Georgia on their mind. A small country, about the size of Ireland, it has an amazing topography with mountains as high as the Alps and beaches to rival the Cote d’Azur. You can swim in the Black Sea, go hiking or skiing in the mountains and in between enjoy bustling city life. The landscape is truly stunning.

Its location on the geographic, cultural and civilizational crossroads between East and West, as well as its long, complex and, at times, tragic history has shaped its culture, defined its character and turned it into one of the most interesting, distinct and magical places to explore.

Add the world’s oldest wine-making industry, great cuisine and an array of cultural festivals and you can see why Georgia is becoming a magnet for more and more tourists.

Georgia prides itself to be the birthplace of viticulture and is home to hundreds of unique, endogenous grape varieties. Archaeological findings prove that Georgians have produced wine in clay vessels (kvevri) for centuries. UNESCO recognized the Georgian traditional method of fermenting wine as a part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

This technology is still alive and thriving, at the forefront of the revival of traditional methods and natural wine production around the world. Today 75% of the production comes from Kakheti in the eastern part of the country, a delightful region with fascinating architecture.

Georgia is also famous for its unique cuisine. The local specialities include badrijani (fried eggplant with walnut sauce), khachapuri (cheese-bread), lobio (bean soup), khinkhali (dumplings) and ajapsandali (vegetable stew).

From delicious wine and food to hospitable people, from incredible landscapes to vibrant cities – Georgia really has it all. Last year tourist numbers jumped over 10% making it the fourth fastest-growing tourist destination in the world.

Georgia’s immediate neighbours (Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) make up about half the numbers but there is a rapidly rising number from Europe thanks to the visa liberalisation process with France, Germany, the UK and Poland in the lead.

Tourism is now a mainstay of the economy accounting for just under 8% of GDP in 2018. Foreign tourists spent over 3 billion euros in Georgia last year. In the first eight months of this year over three million tourists visited Georgia, an increase of 19% over 2018.

Most tourists will spend a few days in the vibrant, hip, capital, Tbilisi with its fabulous restaurants, bars, galleries and museums. The Art Nouveau district of Sololaki with its pastel houses and intricately carved wooden balconies is home to some of Tbilisi’s best and most bohemian restaurants.

The seaside resort of Batumi is more than just the beach and funky architecture. The city has a charming old town, amazing botanical garden, and wonderful churches. Kutaisi is often overlooked by tourists but the second biggest city in Georgia has much to offer.

Tourists in search of adventure will find everything here. You can go skiing in Gudauri, climb Mt. Kazbek (5047m), go horseback riding in numerous valleys or hiking or paragliding in the mountains. The Tusheti mountain range is home to the craggy Mount Ushba, known as the Matterhorn of the Caucasus.

Around Georgia, you will find several fortresses (like the one Gori) and castles (Ananuri, Rabati) as well as incredible cave towns like Uplistsikhe or Vardzia. All over the country, you will find beautiful churches and monasteries, some of them as old as from the sixth century (like the one in Mtskheta, the “holy city” of Georgia).

Georgia has also been boosting its cultural attractions with music to the fore. Inspired by George Ramishvili, the founder and chairman of Silk Road Group, the Tsinandali Festival brings together old and young world-class musicians and conductors.

Last year it hosted the Verbier festival chamber orchestra and the Pan-Caucasian youth orchestra composed of 80 talented young musicians from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as Kazakhstan, Turkey and Ukraine.

There is, of course, a rich tradition of classical music in Georgia. Many Georgians are internationally renowned musicians, be they opera singers, violinists or pianists.

Among the cultural stars living outside of Georgia are the pianists, Khatia Buniatishvili and Alexander Toradze, the violinist Lisa Batiashvili, the – mezzo-soprano, Anita Ratchvelishvili and the top designer Demna Gvasalia.

Georgia is awash with other festivals. Apart from Tsinandali, there is the Batumi Music Fest, the Telavi International Music Festival, the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, the Batumi International Art House Film Festival, the Tbilisi Photo Festival and the Tbilisi Book Days.

Georgia was the guest of honour at the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair in recognition of its rich literary heritage.

Georgia is now a partner in the Creative Europe Programme that allows cultural and creative organisations from Georgia to team up with partners from all over Europe to get funding for cultural cooperation projects, literary translation schemes, and cultural networks and platforms.

On the sporting front, Georgia is a leading rugby country, ranked twelfth in the world, and won over many fans with their open style of play in the recent world cup in Japan.

Georgia’s soft power is thus increasing steadily and helping to ensure that more and more people really do have Georgia on their minds.

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