Wow! You are going to Georgia, the
United States of America! No...I am
going to the country, Georgia. This was
my conversation with my friends when I broke
the news of my yet another international trip.
I had heard about Georgia because my cousin
is pursuing her medical studies from Tbilisi
(capital city). The Indian student community is
by far the largest international student traffic
to Georgia. I thought it is just a hub for medical
students from India, but I was proved wrong by
this beautiful, virgin and picturesque country.
It is a destination for FITs, honeymooners and
MICE travellers. My visit to Georgia was one of
the best trips of my life for many reasons. Will
unfold that later!
So here I was, part of a Familiarisation
(FAM) tour with the 14 leading Indian MICE
tour operators during mid-March (that’s the end
of winter in Georgia). The trip was organised by
Sharjah-based Air Arabia in association with
the Georgian National Tourism Administration
(which partly funded the tour), Captain Plus
(local DMC), and the Embassy of Georgia in New
Delhi. The focus of the trip (first Indian FAM
tour to Georgia) was to introduce and create
awareness among the Indian travel trade about the
bi-weekly flights (now four-times-a-week operating
on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) started
by Air Arabia from its hub Sharjah to Tbilisi
last year. The airline has deployed its brand new
narrow-body aircraft A320 on Sharjah-Tbilisi route
with a seat capacity of 162 passengers. The flight
took off from Mumbai at around 5 in the morning
and arrived in Sharjah at 6.30 am (local time in
Sharjah). Although Air Arabia is an LCC, the seats
were quite spacious and comfortable. Our connecting flight to Tbilisi was at
1 pm and we had a good five hours to kill at the airport. But the wait didn’t
seem too long as we were given royal treatment at the First Class lounge at
the Sharjah International Airport. The well-appointed lounge had comfortable
seating area, free Wi-Fi connection, designated smoking area, charging points
and a variety of food and beverage items. After three hours and fifteen minutes
of boarding the aircraft, we were in Tbilisi.
Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Georgia
is bordered by the Black Sea in the west, Russia to the north, Turkey and
Armenia to the south, and Azerbaijan to the southeast. On arrival to Tbilisi,
a pleasant post-winter evening welcomed us. We were housed at the city
centre hotel, Holiday Inn, a 25-minute drive (depending on the traffic) from
the airport. On our way to the hotel, I witnessed the Georgian architecture
that has been influenced by many civilisations. There are several different
architectural styles for castles, towers, fortifications and churches. Georgian
ecclesiastic art is one of the most fascinating aspects of Georgian Christian
architecture, which combines classical dome style with original basilica-style
forming, now known as the Georgian cross-dome style. The official language
is Georgian, one of the oldest languages in the world and the currency is Lari.
In the first half of the fourth century Christianity was adopted as the state
religion. Our bus passed by the River Mtkvari (also called Kura River). The
1,515-km-long river starts in northeastern Turkey, flows to Georgia, then to
Azerbaijan, where it receives the Aras as a right tributary, and enters the
Caspian Sea. Call it a nature’s game plan that most of the tourist destinations
in Georgia have Kura River as the backdrop.
Our first dinner in Georgia gave a feel of the country’s gastronomic culture.
Georgian cuisine and wine have evolved through the centuries, adapting
traditions in each era. We were at ‘In the Shadow of Metekhi’, a museum-
restaurant with its ethnographic interior and retro contents. The restaurant’s
concept and décor is designed due to the scenography of the play, In the
Shadow of Metekhi. The live performance by local artistes gave us a glimpse
of fiery Georgian dances and songs. It was a chilly night, which I only realised
after coming to the big balcony (of the restaurant) overlooking Mtkvari. We
tasted the popular national dish ‘khachapuri’ (cheese-filled bread) and some
amazing Georgian wines. Also known as Cradle of Wine, Georgia has one of
the oldest wine-making traditions in the world and archaeological finding
indicates wine production dating back to 6000 BC. We tasted the popular
beverage, Chacha, which is not to be missed. It is fruit homebrew and is
made of grape pomace (grape residual left after making wine). The term
‘Chacha’ in Georgia is used to refer to any type of moonshine made of fruits.
After a sumptuous dinner we headed back to the hotel and I crashed on my
bed to start a fresh and eventful day.
After a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tbilisi, we were at the country’s
smallest town, Sighnaghi in Georgia’s easternmost region of Kakheti.
Its environs are known for their landscapes and historical monuments.
Sighnaghi has recently undergone a fundamental reconstruction programme
and has become an important centre of Georgia’s tourist industry. Our first
stop was the Bodbe Monastery of St. Nino, located two km from the town
of Sighnaghi. Originally built in the 9th century, it has been significantly
remodeled, especially in the 7th century. The monastery now functions as
a nunnery and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia, due to its
association with St. Nino, the fourth century female evangelist of Georgians,
whose relics are enshrined there. The back side of the monastery provided a
breathtaking view of the snow-clad mountains. The Sighnaghi town is still
enclosed by a long defensive wall built by King Erekle II in the second half
of the 18th century. Each of the wall’s 23 towers are named after a nearby
village and served as a refuge for the whole community. The town offers
splendid views of the Alazani Valley and the Daghestan high Caucasus.
The walk through the path connecting one tower to another gives a feel of
walking at a China wall.
I was fortunate to get an opportunity to experience the 5,000-year-old Georgian
wine. Kraveli wine tunnel was dug out of the flank of the Greater Caucasus
Mountains near Kvareli in Kakheti. It has a natural temperature of 12-14 degree
Celsius throughout the year, ideal for storing and ageing wine. The tunnel was
originally built by the military towards the end of the 1950s. However, the rapid
development of military technology rendered the tunnel’s defensive potential
obsolete, and it lost its meaning. From that moment on, the tunnel was used to
store Kakheti’s finest wines. The complex consists of two main tunnels linked by
13 smaller galleries, each 500-mtr-long. The total length of these tunnels is 7.7
km. Wines are stored and aged in large quantities in the tunnels. This is where
the Winery Khareba stores around 25,000 bottles of its finest wines. We also had
the opportunity of wine tasting at the cellar. Kraveli also houses a restaurant,
‘Saperavi’ situated on top of a 60-mtr-high hill next to the tunnel entrance. Lunch
for the day was at the Royal Batoni. Opened in mid 2013, the hotel is located in
Kvareli by Ilia’s lakeside, between the mountains of Kvareli and river Duruji.
It is an hour and a half drive from Tbilisi. The hotel has a restaurant with an
outdoor bar and an Ilia’s lake view terrace; conference hall; lake view hanging
outdoor swimming pool; a wine cellar; sauna and a Cigar Room.
Jvari Monastery and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Save the best for the last and that’s exactly what happened on the last day
of the tour. It was the most memorable and exciting day of the entire trip.
Located 20 kms north of Tbilisi, it was time to explore the oldest city of Georgia,
Mtskheta. Our first stop near Mtskheta was Jvari or Jvari Monastery (Holy
Cross), a Georgian Orthodox monastery of the sixth century. The weather was
quite breezy and cold at the time we reached the monastery that stands on the
rocky mountain top at the confluence of two major rivers the Aragvi and the
Mtkvari. Overlooking the village of Mtskheta, which was formerly the capital
of the Kingdom of Iberia, Jvari is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
According to traditional accounts, on this location in the early 4th century, Saint
Nino, a female evangelist is credited with converting King Mirian II of Iberia to
Christianity. However, the original church was too small to hold all the visitors
and in between 586 and 605 AD, the larger Jvari cathedral was built over the
wooden cross. The pedestal of the old cross has been preserved. While taking
a walk at the area I realised that every corner around the Jvari offered a
different view and angle of the masterpiece.
The next attraction, the city of Mtskheta (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
is the second largest church building in Georgia, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It
has been the burial site of Georgian kings and is built on the site where it is
said that the shirt of Jesus was buried. In 326 AD, when Georgia announced
Christianity as its official religion, the first Christian King Mirian was advised
by St. Nino to build a church here, over the grave where Christ’s shirt was
buried. A Lebanese cedar tree growing on the grave was cut down and used to
make the seven pillars of the church. However, the seventh and biggest pillar
had magical properties which meant it hung in the air unsupported, until St.
Nino prayed it to return to earth. This pillar was said to have illuminated light
and radiated a lovely fragrance and even a magical liquid which could cure
many diseases. The pillar was called ‘Sveti Tskhoveli – a life-giving pillar’,
which later became the name given to the cathedral.
Further up was the next and the most exciting part of the trip. We were on
the way to Gudauri, a young and rapid developing winter sports resort located
at Kazbegi region of Georgia. Located 120 km from Tbilisi, at the height of
2,196 m (about 7,200 feet) near the Cross Pass, Gudauri has 50 km of marked
and prepared routes suitable for pro-riders and beginners to ski. The ski resort
also has the facility of cable railway, which may be closed in rare occasions of
very low visibility or high wind. It is equipped with standby power generator
for blackout protection.
The skiing season in Georgia is between December and April. In May,
skiing is possible on the five highest lift (levels) or even on the second lift in
snow. However, Heli Ski that is available throughout the season is a unique
challenge for everyone. On our way to Gudauri it started snowing. This was my
first encounter with the snow. The temperature suddenly dropped to 2-3 degree
Celcius. We stopped at a ski resort at Gudauri and started throwing huge snow
balls at each other. It was freezing cold but the entire experience was for a lifetime.
While climbing the ski area (although we didn’t ski but passed by some skiers), I
slipped and had only snow to help me lift myself. I promised myself to return and
ski on these mountains.
Passing through the snow-clad mountains on both the sides of the road we
headed to Kazbegi, a small town in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region of north-eastern
Georgia. We were lucky to get a view of Gergeti Glacier in Kazbegi. As the roads
were blocked we missed the chance to visit the Gergeti Trinity Church. The church
is situated on the right bank of the river Chkheri at an elevation of 2170 mtr under
Mount Kazbegi. Carrying the beautiful memories of the day in my heart we headed
back to the hotel at Tbilisi.
On the last day I decided to take the city tour myself. It needs to be mentioned
here that Georgia is a safe destination and can be explored (at least the city side)
alone. I took a taxi from the hotel to the freedom square, which was 10-15 minutes
drive. The metros, taxi or city buses are the best way to commute within the city.
From there passing the Rustaveli Avenue I went to the Bridge of Peace, a bowshaped
pedestrian bridge over the Kura River. Opened in 2010 the bridge stretches
150 mtr over the Kura River, was ordered by the City Hall of Tbilisi to create a
contemporary design feature connecting old Tbilisi with the new district. The bridge
provides a unique view of Metekhi Church, Narikala Fortress and statue of city’s
founder Vakhtang Gorgasali on one side, and Baratashvili Bridge and Presidential
Office on the other. I stopped by a restaurant to experience another Georgian dish,
khinkali (minced, spiced meat in a dumpling, served in enormous quantities). It
was yummy and comes with fillings of mushroom and cheese. The city never sleeps
and has a vibrant nightlife with casinos, bars and shisha (hookah) restaurant. That
night finally I got a chance to meet my cousin and we went out to the Chardon
Square, and had a relaxing time smoking shisha (the apple flavour).
Before we set to take off for India we had a taste of India at the Indian
restaurant, Maharajah. The restaurant is run by Ali and his wife Natia Bibiluri
for the past ten years. It is the oldest Indian restaurant in Georgia. Set at the
backdrop of Indian ambience the restaurant with 50 covers serves authentic
vegetarian and non-vegetarian Indian cuisines.
As all good things come to an end, so did my trip. This sojourn in Georgia
was beyond my expectations and I took home some beautiful memories that
will be cherished forever
The objective of organising the FAM trip was to
introduce Georgia as a MICE destination to the
Indian tour operators. Besides MICE, Georgia is a
destination for family travel, honeymooners and study tours
for students. The country has a rich heritage and culture,
natural flora and fauna, national parks, beaches, mountains, nightlife, etc. It has
everything to offer to a tourist. Air Arabia started bi-weekly flights from its hub
Sharjah to Tbilisi last winter and considering the potential of the destination, the
frequency has been increased to four-flights-a-week this summer. The online visa
facility has further eased travel between the two countries. We will be conducting
ATL and BTL campaigns to promote the destination.
|Tarun Malhotra, Director, InOrbit Tours Pvt. Ltd. (Mumbai)
Georgia has a Russian influence, but offers better
options for MICE travellers who are looking for a new
destination. In Georgia, hotel room rates are cheaper
than in Russia. The country offers easy accessibility and
ease of visa. The city has vibrant nightlife with many
options. Of the various sub-segments of MICE, Georgia
has potential for meetings and incentives. Georgia is a
summer as well as winter destination; a four-night itinerary is perfect
for MICE travellers.
|Nishant Mani, Regional Sales Head - MICE Outbound, Via.com (New Delhi)
Georgia has tremendous potential for Indian
travellers. The destination can give a European feel
and experience. The visa process has become online
now and Georgia is well connected by airlines like
Air Arabia, flydubai, and Qatar Airways. It is an apt
destination for 4/5 nights for corporate entities and
family groups. Vibrant nightlife with casinos and bars
is the selling point of Georgia. The Georgian market is ready to tap
Indian travellers as there are two to three DMCs that have handled
Indian groups. Also, it could be clubbed as a package destination with
Armenia and Azerbaijan.
|Sandeep Khetarpal, Director, Central Asia Guided Tours (New Delhi)
Georgia is a sellable destination in the Indian market.
The destination has something to offer every segment
of traveller, be it family, leisure, high-end travellers,
or incentive groups. It has scenic beauty, casinos,
ski resorts, culture, and cable car ride is cheap. An
itinerary of 4/5 nights in Tbilisi and Batumi would be
great, and the country can be promoted as a year-round
destination. In addition, Georgia and Armenia can be promoted as a
|Pramod K Diwaker, CEO, Leisure Tours & Travels (Ahmedabad)
Georgia is a new destination and can be positioned
as a substitute to Europe. A good volume of Indian
corporate clients can be generated for the destination.
A five-night itinerary is perfect to explore the beautiful
destination. Georgia can also be clubbed with Armenia.
Obtaining a visa for Georgia is a hassle-free process.
|Kashmira Thaker, Proprietor, Horizon Holidays (Ahmedabad)
Georgia as a destination can be developed for Indian
travellers. It has scenic beauty, nightlife, snow,
mountains, and is a safe and non-congested destination.
It is a destination for MICE, budget travellers, and
honeymoon segment. Tbilisi has an Indian restaurant.
Connectivity and visa are also not a problem.