Written by Koka Kalandadze
The FINANCIAL -- Interview with Maia Sidamonidze, Chairwoman of the Georgian National Tourism Agency.
Q. What are the three main challenges that are slowing the development of tourism in Georgia?
A. I think we have quite significant challenges affecting tourism in Georgia. The primary challenge for us is to satisfy the demand for our country, which is potentially huge, and provide this sector with the needed infrastructure. The second challenge is the quality of service in the hospitality sector which is very important in maintaining the amount of tourists, or even increasing them. Thirdly there’s need for an education system, as we need good human skills in this sector. For some reason there is sometimes a negative attitude towards the service sector but we want to popularize this industry in order to make people want to work in it.
Q. How many tourists do you expect this winter and is it likely that hotels may not be able to accommodate tourists at some point?
A. Last year we had 80,000 people going to Bakuriani and Gudauri, if we consider the fact that new infrastructure is developed and new destinations like Mestia have appeared, then it could reach more than 100,000 this year. If for example last year’s number doubled then we wouldn’t have a sufficient amount of hotels to cater to the new demand. In Svaneti there are 450 beds but even though new projects are continuing to come up I’m sure that Svaneti will be full this season.
Q. As statistics show, the bulk of tourists are still flowing in from neighbouring countries and the CIS. Does that mean that the Georgian tourism sector should be oriented more at its neighbours?
A. I think we should maximize our potential when dealing with our neighbour countries. The reason that those people from neighbouring countries are coming here is that they know Georgia well and have a good relationship with us on a country level, they also know that we have a great combination of sea and mountains here. This has been true since the time of the Soviet Union, and they’re closer in mentality to us as well. The primary markets are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Ukraine , Belarus, Baltic Countries, Kazakhstan, Israel and Iran.
There’s even greater potential from Asia, America and Western Europe. But if we need to enter those markets then first we need to increase awareness about Georgia and therein lies a problem - concerning international awareness about our country. When people hear about Georgia they still associate it with tense political situations. Secondly we should focus on our strategy in terms of how to enter and brand Georgia on foreign markets, and to supply their demand. We’re working very closely with the private sectors of those countries as well as Georgian ones to provide up to date information on tourist resorts together with having business partnerships so as to have a lot of tourists flowing here.
Q. What new is being done to attract people from European countries and the United States to Georgia?
A. On Western and American markets we need to raise the popularity of Georgia among their people. As we’re not such a rich country to afford to advertise on TV all the time, we need to attend exhibitions, meet and make the right contacts there and provide media tours for them.
We had the Shanghai Expo recently and it was very helpful in increasing awareness of Georgia there. Most of the people at the exhibition didn’t know much about Georgia although they became interested over the course of the event and almost 2 million people visited our stand there, making those people potential tourists for us.
Generally we do a promo campaign when we’re going abroad which involves the following: with the help of our overseas Georgian embassies we arrange meetings with tour operators that are working and then with travel media representatives we do presentations, thereafter inviting them here on a fun trip - which is a familiarization trip, according to the season.
As for the advertising campaigns as you know there was the “Summer in Georgia” video clip which turned out to be quite successful as a bulk of tourists came here following that. In addition for winter we’re planning to do some advertisements too. Nowadays, due to globalization the internet has become one of the cheapest and most effective tools to advertise and do PR campaigns. So this year we’ll be busy with internet activities on blogs, creating new websites as we generally need to increase our internet representation as a lot of tourists are searching for info on the net.
In addition it’s very important to educate the private sector and advise them on how to provide online booking systems and other services for tourists to easily get what they want.
Q. Which types of travel packages could be created to boost the demand in Europe for Georgian tours?
To gain a competitive advantage you need to have very innovative and different packages on offer so as to differentiate from other countries - specific tours combined with low prices. Recently prices for tours to Georgia were cut due to the introduction of low cost airlines. We’re still cheap compared to lots of tourist destinations but perhaps for some people in Baltic countries for example it’s cheaper for them to go to a Scandinavian country rather than come to Georgia, just in terms of price.
Q. What is the brand of Georgia like? How do tourists identify our country?
A. I don’t think we have a strong brand identity or a slogan for Georgia. But at the same time we’re busy working on positioning the country on the world map in terms of all four seasons and diversity.
The word diversity is very well applied to our Georgian tourism brand as the country is rich in natural tourism destinations and all the needed resources in addition to being culturally diverse.
Q. Could you tell us which global travel companies offer travel packages to Georgia?
A. There are travel agencies who are active promoting Georgia. As we have invited them here and tried to arrange meetings with the private sector here. So they are the ones who start negotiating with the private sector and thereafter create the needed travel packages. That’s how it works as if you want to sell a package then you have to have the contact info of the travel agency which is concerned with outgoing tourism. So whenever you have a partnership abroad, they try to sell your packages there. Thus even though you might not have an office in a foreign country, by cooperating with certain agencies you can attract a number of tourists from there.
Recently we made a partnership with the biggest Israeli travel agency called “Flying Carpet” who had thousands of people travelling to Turkey, but then it stopped as you know, so now for 40% of those tourists Georgia is the best tourist destination.
Q. How do you think of and evaluate the prices that hotels or other guest houses charge for tourists in Georgia compared to other countries like Turkey?
A. When we compare Georgia to Turkey, they’re ten years ahead so it’s too difficult to compare prices because their tourism development has a long history which means there’s already established demand. They have many hotels, and at the same time there’s huge competition among those hotels and the prices are regulated on the market.
Although we have an increase in terms of number of tourist in Georgia, the private sector and the market still isn’t regulated, the reason being that there need to be more hotels and restaurants opening and when the competition is high then those hotels will be competing with the prices and services they each offer.
Q. What about advertising or introducing travel packages to global travel agencies, what can be done to brand Georgia there as well?
A. Usually how it’s done as I’ve worked with private sector tourism is that, the hotel for instance that I worked for, did revenue management to maximize distribution channels, and internet is one of the distribution channels. Of course we want to be on trip advisor or hotels.com but actually this is the job of the private sector. As when you go to trip advisor then you need to update information about the tourist destinations and no one will do it for you. Then you have to charge reasonable prices.
But when there’s a situation with the market not being educated I think then it’s our job to provide them with the information. That’s why we’re planning from January to do workshops to present main online booking systems like expedia.com and say that you can book a hotel in Georgia on there.
Actually those leading global travel agencies are working on mass tourism where they can sell a lot of travel packages abroad. Secondly they prioritize the countries in which they’re offering the lowest prices for holidays so as to sell their packages. So they always try to sell packages that are cheap.
Nowadays people don’t use travel agencies as actively as they used to but instead use the internet and all existing travel agencies are now reduced to trying to survive on the market, therefore offering the most affordable prices.
We haven’t contacted those agencies because as the Government we can’t do anything. What we can do is invite them here and tell our travel agencies to meet with them but I don’t think they’ll even be coming here as they’re working on mass tourism.
And actually there are lots of countries missing, like even Switzerland, not to mention our neighbouring countries.
Q. Typing Georgia in to Google brings up a lot of information about the U.S. Georgia. It seems as though the actual Republic of Georgia is not well positioned in Google search. How can the brand of Georgia be better promoted in that respect?
A. When I came here and was appointed as Chairwoman, I together with the communication department at the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development tried to contact Google. At first we were fobbed off, but when our new minister Vera Kobalia went to the U.S. she managed to meet with the right people at Google.
As for search engine optimization, the reason Georgia is often overtaken by U.S. Georgia sites is that we need to increase the number of websites about our country. One way to optimize the search is to pay Google an amount of money to position our country first or to put key words on websites so that when people search for relevant info your website comes up first.
Q. Even in Google Images (when typing Georgia in the images search section) there are pictures depicting violence and aggression from the August war, subsequent riots, etc. What can be done to remove those pictures? Can’t you ask Google to help with that? (Despite the fact that it’s automatically generated by Google)
A. This is a problem of globalization. As we’re not China or Cuba and we have democracy in the country, we can’t just ask Google to remove the pictures. It’s impossible because then any country would be asking Google for the same thing. So the only way to beat the situation is to cover those negative pictures with positive ones which is just a matter of time.
Q. What’s the budget of the Department of Tourism and Resorts for 2010/11 and is it enough for the execution of all your plans?
A. Currently our budget is 2.5mln GEL but this is going to be increased for the coming year. This money is used for routine activities, exhibitions, printing brochures, paying salaries etc. but when it comes to advertising then this money isn’t enough of course. But in addition if we need some specific advertisement campaign then we’ll be telling it to the Government and presenting it our project for financing. After which they’ll decide whether or not to grant us the money or not.
Q. What is the advantage of Georgia compared to other well known countries? Why should tourists choose Georgia over Italy, France or Turkey?
A. First of all we are a new destination for the world market. Then we’re offering diverse tourism in Georgia for all four seasons. In addition people of all ages are welcome to come here, as they can come and enjoy hunting, fishing, eco tourism, we’ve lots of very nice lakes and nice coastline in addition to ski resorts, and so forth. This is our main advantage as some countries don’t have this luxury at all.
Q. What about the service sector of tourism in Georgia? Is it satisfactory and what can be done to improve it?
A. Of course the service sector is not satisfactory and there should be a lot of things happening in that respect including changes in the education sector. There are some professional schools but the amount of the professional schools should be increased. There are two training centres, one in Tbilisi and one in Kobuleti. Education is actually a long term strategy and what we can have in the short term is small trainings, to encourage businesses to train their staff and be more competitive.
We also plan to create a special website from January where a tourist can go like tripadvisor.com and post positive as well as negative things about any hotel or service they experienced whilst travelling to Georgia. By doing so we’ll gain lots of information and find out where we are lacking. The mentality of the majority of tourist hotel owners is that they’re not willing to train their staff, so once they see that tourists are actually concerned with the service offered then they’ll be encouraged to do so.
Q. How effective will low cost airlines be in terms of bringing tourists to Georgia?
Do you have any specific figure of bulk increase in number of visitors since Pegasus appeared on the market - and what similar initiatives are there to motivate tourists’ inflow in Georgia? Which internal directions are air flights travelling to, and are any other routes being added in the future?
A. Low cost airlines are very important for us, as we are gaining a cost advantage in this case. Pegasus is very popular now and most of the larger airlines are suffering as a result of it entering the market. There are even further negotiations being held with other low cost airlines, but as they are not yet confirmed, the information remains confidential. Right now is the most passive season for tourism so we can’t even observe how effective low cost airlines are in bringing about a bulk increase of tourists.
As for the domestic flights they are also important, as you know we had flights called Air-Batumi this summer which stopped for various reasons but there will be other ones entering this line as well. As for the Mestia destination, from December there’s going to be a new Airport opened there with flights from Tbilisi to Mestia by airplane.
Q. What kind of tours should be offered in order to attract young tourists? Do you have concrete plans in this regard?
A. When targeting young travellers I think internet is the best way to popularize different destinations and tour packages. Recently we had some offers from Euronews and Fashion TV as they’ve started tourism advertising campaigns for different countries. They’re working on youth as well which is good, but at the same time such advertising would cost us a lot.