Georgia On My Mind
When Louis Armstrong sang ‘Georgia On My Mind’ in 1931, he wasn’t thinking of a small independent democratic nation nestling in the Caucasus Mountains on the Black Sea but, on the 4th July this year, I certainly was.
I was honoured to be invited by the Georgian Ambassador to Britain to join her and many other dignitaries to the Georgian Embassy in London where the launch of Georgian Airways first direct flights between Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and London Gatwick was taking place.
I am joined in the photograph above by H.E Mrs Tamar Beruchashvili, the Ambassador on my far right and Eteri Gaiashvili, who is Head of Business Development for Georgian Airways on my immediate right.
Prior to arriving at the Embassy, I met Derek Pickup for an early supper in Holland Park. Derek is Chair of the Bristol/Tbilisi Twinning Association and has done much to encourage positive links between Britain and Georgia. He is also now an honorary Georgian Citizen, something that isn’t given out to many people.
Georgia is a small country of 3.7m people and was part of the Soviet Union until 1995 when it won its independence. Since then, the country has gone from strength to strength and is emerging as a little powerhouse of democracy situated in the Caucasus mountains, bordered to the west by the Black Sea and the east by the stunning mountains themselves, which attract millions of tourists, including experienced skiers, who sample the country’s excellent slopes.
The country has land borders with Russia to the north, to the south with Turkey and Armenia and to the east by Azerbaijan.
Tourists are beginning to flock to this wonderful independent country which has a Mediterranean climate and some of the friendliest and most hospitable people anywhere.
Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world and was producing wines over 8,000 years ago, so produces delicious red and white wines, many of which, in the old soviet days, used to go exclusively to Russia, but since independence are increasingly being sipped by wine lovers in the west, me included!
One of the things that came out in my conversation with another guest was an anomaly which puzzled me.
Apparently the aircraft flying from the UK to Georgia are full of British businesspeople and tourists but flights in the opposite direction have many fewer Georgians, why? Well the answer is quite easy to answer as it happens. The British Government charge our Georgian friends around £400 for a one visit visa! That means that the hundreds of thousands of friendly Georgian tourists who would love to visit the United Kingdom are penalised by having to pay a ludicrous surcharge on their travel cost. Many cannot actually get visas easily either!
Surely, with Brexit looming, we Brits need to be more magnanimous and even handed when dealing with friendly, smaller, democratic nations, like Georgia? The Americans certainly are! I understand that Georgians are free to visit the USA without these restrictions, so do so frequently. The European Union offer visa free travel to Georgians too, so many visit Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam, rather than London. Surely it is not beyond reason to ask the British Government to offer the same to a very friendly nation which is keen to embrace Britain on all levels.
I will be in Tbilisi in September (travelling by Georgian Airways of course) and hope to meet with various Georgian Government Officials and also catch up with the British Ambassador, Justin McKenzie Smith, when I will ask why Britain cannot embrace Georgia more thoroughly by dropping onerous visa requirements and allow trade to develop more completely between two independent democratic nations.
If Britain is to leave the European Union it needs to positively promote trade and tourism with the rest of the world. A good place to start that process would be by offering to drop these onerous visa requirements levied on our friends in Georgia as quickly as possible.
Many thanks to the Georgian Ambassador to Britain and her very capable and hospitable staff for providing us all with a lovely evening on a very hot 4th July.