Why does not air travel start in Georgia?
Talks about the opening of the closed airspace and the renewal of flights began in April in Georgia. Initially, there a discussion about a possible renewal of flights in June, but, finally the government announced that the renewal of flights would take place from July 1, 2020.
This was preceded by a somewhat consistent campaign by the Ministry of Economy, which periodically has been publishing information on the various successful negotiations on the establishment of a safe air corridor with different countries and the resumption of tourism. This communication was especially intensified throughout the June. For clear illustration, let’s follow chronologically the public statements made by the Minister of Economy, Natia Turnava:
June 5 – “We will be able to connect with the countries where the epidemiological situation is almost equal to Georgia without mandatory quarantine”
June 11 – “Out of 36 airlines represented in Georgian market, 18 have already expressed their desire to resume flights”
June 12 – “It is our priority to quickly restore low-budget flights”
June 14 – “Up to 20 airlines, want to resume flights to Georgia”
June 14 – “Negotiations for the creation of safe corridors are in active phase with Israel, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Baltic States”
June 15 – “We discussed the requirements for safe corridor with the Minister of Tourism of Greece”
And finally June 25 statement – “We are waiting for the decision of the European Union on the development of tourism and we are observing the epidemiological situation in different countries”
These statements are important and interesting in several respects. First of all, the Minister of Economy should anticipate that while making such statements, she communicates not only with the general population and prospective tourists, but also to the business sector and companies operating in tourism. When companies hear systematic statements from the leadership of the government’s economic team that leaves a seemingly consistent policy perception, they grow some confidence towards the process. Consequently, many businesses have made calculations according to the information provided by the government and have assembled their plans and business model according to these calculations. For example, if you visit any Georgian or worldwide booking web-sites, you will easily find that hotel prices in Georgia are planned according to the governments prognosis. Till the June 31, standard seasonal prices are reduced by 35-50% for almost all hotels in Georgia (due to the closed borders). Prices are set to increase by 20-30% from July 1, and they will return to standard seasonal pricing by the end of July. The reason behind this is the government’s campaign that they have successfully concluded negotiations with various countries and airlines and that the flights should have restored from July 1.
Expectations play a crucial role in business, and therefore the creation of false expectations by the government can cause a serious harm to any sector, companies and people employed in it.
The timing and logic of the government’s June 25 statement is also quite vogue. While EU was discussing the possible resumption of flights with non-member states on June 25, the Georgian officials said on that day that flights would resume not from July 1, but were expected to renew from the end of July. According to preliminary reports, there was a high probability that Georgia would be included in the list of COVID-19 safe countries (which it did), and therefore the timing and arrangement of the decision made by the government of Georgia goes beyond the scope of adequacy. At the beginning of this text, you can read the statement of the Minister that Georgia was waiting for the decision of the European Union and within the few hours of making this statement, so as did not wait for the decision of EU, announced that flights would not be resumed until the end of July.
The Minister of Finance – Ivane Machavariani commented on this issue. According to Machavariani, at this stage, the risks of restarting flights will far outweigh the potential economic benefits. He stated that if we do a simple modeling, we will see that the number of visitors that may come to Georgia in near future is “a drop in the ocean” and it cannot really help the economy and tourism sector. Assuming this is indeed the certainty, and indeed flight renewal will have no tangible effect on the country’s economy, then logically the set of questions arises: Why did the entire state apparatus propagated flight resumption and border opening throughout the June and why they created false expectation? Why did the Ministry of Economy carry out the number of negotiations with several countries to create a safe corridor? Why did we try so hard to be included in the list of safe countries of the EU, and why did we refuse to use this opportunity right before Georgia was included in the list?
Besides, the statement made by the Minister of Finance focuses only on the economic impact of the visitors and tourists entering the country after flight renewal, but disregards how important it is for Georgians living or being abroad. According to the official data of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, 11 thousand citizens returned to Georgia during the pandemic, and 20 thousand were provided with the assistance on the spot. The fact is that 11 thousand is not a big number and there are still lots of our fellow citizens around the world who want to return to Georgia. Many of them have lost their jobs, been left without income and a housing, many just simply want to return to Georgia and spend time with their families and loved ones. Therefore, it is off beam to discuss the restoration of flights only from economic prism.
Situation in EU
The Georgian government is very proud that Georgia is one of the most successful countries in the world in the fight against coronavirus, and of course we share this enthusiasm. However, it is crucial to translate these achievements into economic and political benefits for the country.
For example, countries that had much severe epidemiological situation than Georgia, have already begun to gradually reopen borders. EU member states opened most of their borders in June. One of the pioneers was the Czech Republic, which resumed flights with neighboring countries on May 27. Greece also was opened on May 31 for some foreign visitors. The restrictions were shifted on June 1 by Bulgaria and Estonia. Austria renewed flights on June 4. Turkey, which was in quite critical situation in March, has restored some flights towards EU countries since June 13. On June 15, Germany, France and Iceland opened their air space for certain EU member states. Poland resumed flights to the EU on June 16.
These examples, subsequently, show that there is already a set of specific procedures and safety norms implemented in European countries, which allow states to gradually restore traffic so as not to considerably worsen the epidemiological situation.
It is unclear why the Georgian government has conducted such a consistent and systematic info-campaign throughout the June about the restoration of air traffic and opening its borders, and then, as when everything should have ended successfully, why they decided to thwart the process.
We hope that this decision of Georgian government, like many others made by them, is not final and the government will reconsider its position. Of course, the health and safety of citizens should be the priority, however, while there is the experience of other states on how to restore traffic between the countries in compliance with safety standards, it is the duty of the government to provide its citizens (and not only) with the opportunity.