BATUMI, Georgia — Russian tourist Denis Gorbachev was with his family on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, about a six-hour drive from Tbilisi, on June 20 when events began to spin out of control in the Georgian capital.
Earlier that day, a Russian State Duma deputy had sat in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s chair in Tbilisi, triggering anti-Russian protests that degenerated into violent clashes between demonstrators and police.
In Russia, the Kremlin labeled the Tbilisi protests as “Russophobic hysteria,” and President Vladimir Putin the next day announced that a ban on flights between Russia and Georgia would go into effect on July 8.
But on a pebblestone beach at Batumi, where Gorbachev’s wife and children were enjoying their first Georgian holiday, Gorbachev remained unfazed.
“Now every day I talk with relatives and friends and the Russian news is very alarmist,” Gorbachev told RFE/RL during the final days of his Georgian holiday. “Our journalists are saying that Georgians could attack Russians here, that it’s not safe for us.”
Gorbachev, who is no relation to the last leader of the Soviet Union, glanced back at his children splashing in the waves behind him.
“It’s an absolute lie,” he said. “We are trying to convince our friends back home that it’s safe.”
Putin’s flight ban is expected to hit the Georgian economy hard.
More than 1.6 million Russian tourists visited Georgia in 2018 — a number that has been steadily rising since the near disappearance of Russian vacationers there immediately after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
Data from Georgia’s National Tourism Agency shows that each Russian tourist last year spent, on average, about $465 during their visit to Georgia — injecting more than $720 million into the Georgian economy.
Georgian analysts now say that if Putin’s flight ban remains in place, Georgia’s economy will lose $250 million to $300 million a year. That’s about 10 percent of the entire annual income generated by Georgia’s tourism sector.
The flight ban hasn’t made it impossible for Russians to visit their Caucasus neighbor to the south.
Airlines that have flown Russia-to-Georgia routes have been scrambling to provide alternative flight routes through nearby Armenia to circumvent the looming ban.
And the so-called Georgian Military Road, a 200-kilometer route that crosses the Greater Caucasus Mountains and connects Tbilisi with the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, remains open.
But the impact already is being felt from the impending flight ban and the reports by Russian state media highlighting anti-Russian sentiment at Tbilisi’s ongoing demonstrations.
Tour operators already report that a wave of cancellations has decimated their earnings in the peak holiday season.
In Tbilisi’s old town, saleswoman Lika hands out leaflets and pitches her company’s guided tours to the foreigners she sees strolling on the cobbled streets.
She estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of her business comes from Russian tourists.
The flight ban will be “a problem for everyone,” she says.
In the same Tbilisi neighborhood, Natia Giorgashvili explains that the spontaneous nature of Russian holidaymakers is crucial to small tour agencies like hers.
“Europeans and Saudis book package tours in advance,” Giorgashvili says. “But Russians usually just buy their plane tickets and then walk around and decide what to do. So you can stop them on the street.”
Giorgashvili says she earns a $5 commission for every person she books on a tour.
“The flight ban will affect my salary for sure,” she told RFE/RL.
Back in Batumi, a group of taxi drivers relaxes in the shade of a tree as they wait for customers.
They say they have already noticed a drop in the number of Russians arriving at the seaside city’s airport since June 20.
“We’ve been dropping them off at the airport [for their return flights to Russia] but we’re not picking them up [as arrivals],” one driver told RFE/RL.
In a town heavily dependent on tourism, the older men show none of the fiery nationalism on display in Tbilisi.
Asked what they think about the potential disappearance of Russian tourists, another driver tells RFE/RL: “We’ll miss them.”