A Pandemic Tourism Pivot From Cool to Wellness
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s the reason Tbilisi might just be the “new Berlin.”
By Dan Peleschuk
- Hotel entrepreneur Valeri Chekheria helped build the nation of Georgia into a post-Soviet tourist gem with a reputation for cool.
- As the country reopens to tourists amid the coronavirus pandemic, he faces his biggest challenge yet: welcoming visitors with an image of health and wellness.
If you stay at one of the hotels Valeri Chekheria runs in the mountainous, stunningly beautiful country of Georgia, you’re bound to have a good time. Given his philosophy, how could you not? “We treat all our guests like they’re a gift from God,” he says, invoking an age-old Georgian belief.
Now, with the tourist business resuming after a devastating pandemic stoppage, each guest exists on an even higher plane.
Anyone who’s roamed the enchanting streets of the capital Tbilisi — or wound their way up the majestic Kazbegi Mountain, then feasted like royalty on mouthwatering cheesy bread and drowned in top-shelf wine — can tell you that Georgia has always been great at welcoming visitors. It’s woven into the country’s social fabric, as it was long a prized Black Sea getaway for Russian and Soviet elites. But Chekheria has helped turned it into a thriving, forward-looking business, with tourism making up 7.6 percent of the nation’s economy in 2018.
As CEO of hospitality firm Adjara Group, the stylish 39-year-old’s portfolio includes a half-dozen hip hotels that are helping transform the post-Soviet nation of 3.7 million into a must-see spot for culturally curious travelers.
In August, Georgia — which has reported only about 1,250 coronavirus cases and 17 deaths — is expected to begin crawling out of international isolation after reopening to commercial flights. Navigating a post-pandemic world will be Adjara’s biggest challenge yet, one that’ll test Chekheria’s business acumen and organizational leadership, as well as his perseverance amid adversity.
We want to keep Georgia a secret, but a secret that we want to share with friends.
So far, though, he has proved himself capable. A former chief of staff to reform-minded government ministers, Chekheria is part of the change-starved generation that helped Georgia shake off its communist shackles, looking West for cultural and political pointers and applying those lessons back at home. Now, he says, it’s time to show off the progress. “We want to keep Georgia a secret, but a secret that we want to share with friends.”
Chekheria’s global outlook belies his humble origins. His family’s apartment was destroyed in the early-1990s civil war that engulfed the nation. That led to a twist of fate whose irony would only later become apparent: Alongside other refugees, Chekheria and his family spent the better part of a decade living in a repurposed hotel.
Those tough times shaped his hunger for something better, both for himself and his wounded country. Chekheria graduated college in Tbilisi with a law degree just a year before another revolt, the Rose Revolution of late 2003. Except this one had a happier ending. Shooting up through the government bureaucracy, he landed key postings at the ministries of economic development and finance, where, as chief of staff, he helped oversee privatization programs and spearheaded tax reforms.
Sure, he and his like-minded peers may have lacked deep experience. “But we were the generation that never got a taste of the money and corruption,” Chekheria says, “and we had an idea of how to build a country.” Georgia won widespread praise for its reform drive, and these days it ranks seventh in the World Bank’s ease of doing business list.
After polishing off his expertise in public administration with a master’s degree from Columbia University, Chekheria returned to Georgia. According to childhood friend and cultural anthropologist Nutsa Batiashvili, going back to the small, tight-knit country “gives you a chance for whatever you’re doing to mean just a little bit more.” Chekheria took charge of the Adjara-run Holiday Inn Tbilisi as general manager before rising to the top job at Adjara, which was founded by influential Georgian philanthropist and entrepreneur Temur Ugulava.
The group operates six hotels, the most prominent of which is Rooms. With three locations across the country, including one in a northern mountainous region with stunning views of Kazbegi, the brand has become known among savvy travelers for an ultra-modern, smart design it calls “industrial chic.” It regularly tops global travel lists.
Another gem is the Fabrika complex, which was transformed from a Soviet-era sewing factory into a multipurpose hostel and hangout space that’s quickly become the nucleus for Tbilisi’s creative class — and much more. “Many young people are coming to Georgia,” says Keti Ebanoidze, who helps run Impact Hub, a co-working space inside the Fabrika complex. “People are even saying Tbilisi is the new Berlin.” In recent years, she adds, Tbilisi has spawned a new crop of free-thinking youngsters planning their own startups.
But the coronavirus pandemic has upended the global travel industry, and like everyone else, Chekheria and Adjara are adjusting. Banking on the international travel industry pivoting toward “health, wellness and eco-tourism,” says corporate communications chief Tina Kavadze, the company is doubling down on its emerging “agropreneurship” business — in which it’ll increasingly source food from local farms. It’s also developing an urban vertical farming project purported to be the region’s first. Meanwhile, Kavadze adds, Georgia’s rich natural beauty will be more instrumental than ever.
Obstacles of a more local nature remain too. Caught between European aspirations and historical traditions, it’s a country that’s home to one of Eastern Europe’s coolest clubs — but also where a woman’s virginity is still a subject of widespread concern, and where gays are regularly targeted for abuse. And its democracy is still a work in progress. Ranked only “partly free” by watchdog Freedom House, Georgia’s score for civil liberties clocks in at an uninspiring 37 out of 60.
Still, Chekheria and his team remain committed to the cause of making their country the envy of the former Soviet world. In the end, he says, they’re not just building a new and exciting kind of business: “We’re building the whole history of Georgia.”
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY AuthorContact Dan Peleschuk