If you’ve been following the news about the pandemic spread, you might have read articles in The Washington Post and other outlets praising Georgia’s response to COVID-19. Indeed, as of mid-August, the nation with 3.75 million population has reported 1,436 cases, with the majority already recovered, and with only 19 fatalities. The spread of the pandemic was slowed down mostly due to the government’s swift and determined actions – closing down schools, banning public gatherings, stopping public transportation, sealing the borders, closing down entrances and exits to all major cities, and even banning the movement of taxis and private passenger cars.
According to Georgia’s National Tourism Administration (a government body under the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development), 9.36 million foreign travelers visited Georgia in 2019 – almost 2.5 times more than the country’s population, and the inbound tourism has been growing without interruptions for over a decade. These numbers translate not only into the growth of food and beverage consumption but also the growth of economy and demand. Given the fact that Georgia is an important destination known for its wine and for its rich, diverse cuisine, inbound tourism has been an important contributor to the growth of agriculture, wine production, as well as food and beverage startups.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has virtually stopped all incoming tourism, and with the future of travel still being unclear, the agriculture industry needs to see this crisis as an opportunity to rethink how to substitute the decline of demand on the local market. The obvious scenario would be to replace some of the imports and to increase the volume of the exports. The former has a great potential given the underdevelopment and vast supply of the country’s agricultural land plots, but the latter, however, seems more complex, as the Georgian exporters will have to diversify the geography, identify markets interested in – and able to import – their products, or to wait for the recovery in their traditional markets, prospects of which, again, seem very unclear.
To many, Georgia is known as the cradle of wine. At least, that’s what the archeologists who found the earliest evidence of winemaking in ancient Georgian relics say. (Sorry, Greece.) Today, Georgia is also an important wine exporter. In fact, Georgia’s wine exports in 2018 were valued at $197 million – two times more than Greece’s $97.6 million, according to American Association of Wine Economists. Greece, sorry again. Georgian National Wine Agency, however, cites Georgia’s wine exports in 2018 as a $203 million business, and claims it grew by over 17% in 2019, reaching almost $240 million.
The future of Georgia’s wine exports largely depends on the economic recovery of its key export markets, and the ability of the exporters to scout new geographies.
Another important product which Georgia produces and exports is hazelnuts. Over 60.000 hazelnut growers saw their crop being attacked by the brown marmorated stink bug during 2016-2018, but in 2019 the infestation was stopped and the exports started to recover reaching $63.3 million. In its best years, Georgia’s hazelnuts exports reached $176-183 million, so the prospects of fast growth here are very realistic.
After being hit with the pandemic, many Georgian entrepreneurs demonstrated their creativity and resilience and moved their agritourism tours and experiences (as almost everything else) to the online world. Relatively high levels of internet and smartphone penetration, as well as, affordable and fast internet, have granted an opportunity for the tourism industry to sell their services such as wine tasting or culinary masterclasses online. This innovative method helps at least some of the players in the agrotourism to stay afloat. And although the tourists can’t actually feel the taste and flavor of Georgian food and drinks online, they definitely can feel the warmth, the resilience, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Georgian people, and plan to experience Georgia in person at the first opportunity.
About the Contributor:
Haky Asriyants leads the Future Agro Challenge Georgia chapter in collaboration with Guri Koiava. Hayk was included in the New Europe 100 list and recognized as one of the 100 changemakers in Central and Eastern Europe by Financial Times, Google, Res Publica journal, and Visegrad fund. Holding a mentor certification and firmly believing in the importance of promoting entrepreneurship, Hayk spends part of his spare time coaching and mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs and startups. He is also a frequent speaker and facilitator at innovation and entrepreneurship events and conferences.
With thanks to FAC Georgia Impact Maker, Hayk Asriyants for contributing his time and expertise in writing this article to share with our FAC global community.