Middle Eastern Tourist Arrivals To Georgia Soar 511% YoY | Salaam Gateway
Georgia has emerged as one of the most popular destinations for vacationers and the Middle East thanks to its scenic landscapes, affordable hotels and proximity to the region, along with the increasing availability of halal food and Arabic speaking guides.
In November 2021, tourist arrivals from the Middle East to Georgia soared 511% year-on-year to 103,500, reaching figures close to pre-pandemic levels, according to statistics from the National Tourism Administration of Georgia (GNTA).
The former Soviet state welcomed more than 150,000 travelers from the Middle East in 2019.
“Georgia is a low budget tourist destination. You can stay in a fully furnished hostel, hotel, or apartment for $ 30 a day, which is pretty cheap. The food is good and cheap, the transportation is cheap and the services are great, ”Islam Shalaby, founder and CEO of Yalla Georgia Travel & Tourism, told Salaam Gateway.
Tourists to the region, especially from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, now come back several times and spend entire months on the Black Sea, in villages around the green Caucasus mountains or in the capital Tbilisi, which is home to the bustling Arab Quarter.
“The GCC countries are one of our key strategic target markets. Once (having) traveled to Georgia, travelers from these countries tend to have longer stays, repeat visits as well as higher spending,” GNTA Acting Director Medea Janiashvili said in a statement. declaration.
GNTA recently partnered with Wego, an online travel marketplace in the Middle East and North Africa, to promote the recovery of the tourism industry in Georgia.
According to Wego, approximately 100,000 searches for Georgia were performed on the platform as of November 2021. Solo travelers accounted for 63% of searches, couples 22%, and families 15%.
Suitable for Muslims tourism
A mountainous country located between Europe and Central Asia, Georgia is predominantly Christian, but has a large Muslim community of over 400,000, representing around 10% of the population.
A few mosques serve this community, and they are mostly found in large cities. Halal food, on the other hand, is widely available in Iranian and Turkish restaurants as well as local restaurants.
“In Tbilisi, halal food is everywhere. Even Georgian-run restaurants serve Halal food, and the locals are Arab-friendly and very peaceful. We have a mosque, in the center of Tbilisi, and it has a Friday prayer every week, ”Taha said.
The Jumah Mosque is one of Tbilisi’s most famous landmarks and possibly the only one in the world where Sunni and Shia Muslims pray side by side, according to Shalaby.
Batumi, the second largest city, has a few halal restaurants serving mainly Turkish cuisine and a mosque. The city is the capital of Ajara, a region located on the Black Sea coast in northern Turkey, where nearly 40% of the population practices Islam.
“Most Georgian food is halal. When you visit a supermarket, you will find halal food and some even have the Georgian language halal label, ”Taha said.
Halal food is also available in cities with large Muslim communities, such as Rustavi and Marneuli, near Azerbaijan, and Pankisi, south of the border with Chechnya.
“In areas along the borders with Muslim countries, you will find large Muslim cities,” said Shalaby, who is also creative director at Swef Land, an Egyptian real estate developer based in Tbilisi.
Outside of these towns, in Georgian villages, halal food is hard to find, but only because tourism is still new to the country, he said.
A home away from home
Georgia’s religious diversity and tolerance, as evidenced by the peaceful coexistence of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, as well as its liberal visa regime, encourage visitors to the Middle East to return to seek a home away from home. and to create businesses.
“When I first came here in 2017 as a student, there were very few Arabs. But now there are a lot of Arabs studying and running businesses, including expatriates from Gulf countries, ”Mohammad Taha, co-founder of International Business Group (IBG), a law firm, told Salaam Gateway. Tbilisi-based education consultancy serving Arab students. “The number of students we enroll is doubling every year.
Georgian universities have easier admission requirements compared to their European counterparts, which are more difficult to access and where Muslim students may encounter Islamophobia, according to Taha.
“People started to notice Georgia because the prices are low, entry is easy, and the country is peaceful. Women feel safe going out at all hours of the day or night, ”he said.
Although there have been a few Islamophobic incidents in recent years, such as the 2017 rally in Tbilisi and the 2021 attack on Muslims against a new prayer space in western Georgia, they are rare and the government usually intervenes.
For example, in a rare case in 2019, when a hotel rejected a Muslim guest, the owner was sentenced to jail, according to Shalaby.
“When your country is wide open to everyone, you get all kinds of people,” he said, referring to illegal immigrants.
“Georgians felt overwhelmed at the start. Arabic was suddenly everywhere in the streets and on the signs of shops next to Georgian. It might be a personal problem among a few, but it certainly doesn’t exist at the societal or political level, ”Shalaby said.
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