By Cynthia Drescher. Photos: Getty.
How does a free bottle of wine with your passport stamp sound? It's not your usual welcome, but for Dutch traveler Jesper Black, it was the start of an unexpectedly outrageous trip to the country of Georgia. He landed at Tbilisi International Airport intent on meeting up with a friend, and became the country's six millionth visitor in 2016. Last week, the Georgia Tourism Board posted a Facebook video of the surprise, which included whisking Black away from the airport with a police motorcade to a red carpet welcome and private dinner with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. (We're not joking.) Georgians were even able to vote in advance on what dishes were served, like khinkali dumplings and chkmeruli chicken in a wine sauce. Kvirikashvili and Black are shown drinking wine and enjoying performances of traditional dance, before Black went off on a week-long trip around the country led by Georgia Tourism (complete with a film crew). The video finishes with Black shedding tears atop a snow-covered mountain.
As it turns out, hitting six million visitors is a huge deal for Georgia, and, by the end of 20166, a grand total of 6,350,825 international travelers had visited. (In 2011, the country in the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia maxed out around 2.8 million visitors.) But if it suddenly feels like everyone is talking about flying to Tbilisi, that might be because of new routes from cities around Europe to Georgia on low-cost airline Wizz Air, plus the launch in December of Qatar Airways flights (and cheap flight deals) via Doha, making the Georgian capital an easy one-stop trip from cities all over the world. Travelers from the U.S. can now hop a Qatar flight from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, or Miami, and be in Georgia with only one connection in Doha.
New arrivals means a need for new hotels, and Georgia has done its homework on what's trending. Fabrika, a former Soviet sewing factory turned "boutique hostel" and multi-function art space, debuted in Tbilisi in October, offering shared and private rooms with a side of cultural programming from $12 per night. In the Caucasus Mountains, at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, the "restored Brutalist building and former Soviet resort" plans sightseeing trips by helicopter (great for fulfilling Instagram #goals); has a restaurant serving "mountainside-to-table" cuisine; and does interior design how Ace Hotels might imagine an alpine chalet. The latest hotel opening is a ski resort made of repurposed shipping containers.
Even The New York Times just got back from a trip around Tbilisi's restaurant scene, praising "prideful Georgian menus," present political calm, and a favorable exchange rate that makes it all very affordable. (Per the State Department, visitors to Georgia should avoid travel to certain regions of the country.) Georgia made our own list of the hottest upcoming wine destinations and, from the growing popularity of the Jesper Black video—no matter how curated it may have been—it sounds like the country will be raising toasts to even more tourists in 2017.
This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.
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