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Winter comes for Georgian hospitality

Eurasianet
08 Apr 2020, 23:49 GMT+10

Ezo, a cafe tucked into Tbilisi's historic center, is usually crowded and lively. But on a recent visit its only patron was a gray cat, perched expectantly on a table.

Chairs were leaned against the tables, and the kitchen was locked. "Not to be melodramatic, but it feels like going into a room of someone who just died: all the things in this room are just as they were, but the main thing is not there: the life," said Gio Lomsadze (no relation to the author), one of Ezo's owners, as he surveyed the cafe's atmospheric courtyard.

Ezo has been a labor of love for Lomsadze and his wife, Kristo Talakhadze. On busy nights, Kristo flits from table to table, chatting and laughing with customers, a mixed crowd of locals and foreigners. Hearty, homemade wine flows from carafes, and waiters scurry back and forth, carrying late-running orders with guilty smiles.

Gio Lomsadze folds chairs at Ezo.

But the coronavirus pandemic has cast a sleeping spell over the city, leaving Tbilisi's restaurants, hotels, bars and cafes desolate and dormant. Strings of lights and banners sway aimlessly over promenades lined with shuttered cafes and boutique shops. Wicker chairs and tables are wrapped up in tarpaulin and plastic.

"These are my regulars now," joked Hassan, a Turkish restaurateur who declined to give his last name, pointing at the clowder of cats besieging his hookah bar in the Middle Eastern quarter on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. "If only they could also pay."

Spring is settling in the city, with warming days and blossoming trees, but it is winter for Georgia's once-booming hospitality business. The industry became the first sector of Georgia's economy to be hit by the crisis and is expected to be the last to recover.

The fast-growing, $620 million hospitality industry, most of it concentrated in Tbilisi, has collapsed as a result of global and local travel bans and stay-at-home orders, and is dragging dependent sectors like agriculture and construction down with it. With businesses shutting down and supply chains snapping, the crisis is taking a financial toll on hoteliers and restaurateurs, especially small and medium business owners.

Lomsadze and Talakhadze have lost their source of revenue - about $30,000 in a good month - and are left saddled with debt. More deeply, they have been deprived of their passion, the creative space where they spend so much time. Out of inertia they still come to the cafe regularly even though they have nobody to entertain. "Gio is keeping a brave face and we kind of silently agreed not to wallow in misery," Talakhadze said. "Everyone is stressed out already and we don't want to add to it."

The pandemic has hit just as Tbilisi's international stature as a new, hip place to visit was skyrocketing. Shedding its "post-Soviet" label, Tbilisi has been going through a renaissance, sprouting new restaurants, hotels, dance clubs and shared work spaces, and hosting international conventions and festivals. Restaurateurs and hoteliers have been borrowing to expand and improve.

Capturing the hearts of international travelers, foodies, clubbers and digital nomads, the city reprocessed its traditional food, architecture and hospitality, blending them with global trends to create something that, to an international eye, is exotic and familiar at the same time. But the invisible virus has quickly muffled all of the city's plans and hopes.

The city's liveliest nooks now strike a tableau from a surrealist film or painting, as if everyone mysteriously packed up and left, leaving only police cars to drive through the thinned streets, broadcasting reminders of stay-at-home orders over loudspeakers.

Fabrika

The change is perhaps most palpable at Fabrika, a Soviet-era textile factory retrofitted into a bustling creative lifestyle hub. The virus scare has scattered its hipster crowd out of the spacious, graffitied courtyard. The city's trendiest pregame spot, convention center and collaborative workspace, Fabrika has closed its hostel, offices, artisanal cafes, and boutique shops, along with Impact Hub, a popular co-working space located in the complex.

"I miss the people at the Impact Hub, many of whom are my friends or colleagues. Just seeing their faces made me feel connected somehow, even if I didn't talk to them," said Eric Barret, an American data journalism and visualization expert living in Tbilisi. "I used to complain about the hour it took me to walk to the Impact Hub, but I'd kill for that walk now."

Some of Fabrika's business has migrated online, said Marika Kvirkvelidze, its marketing manager, such as cafes doing home delivery. Yet "all of the upcoming events - conferences, movie screenings, fairs, concerts - all of it is cancelled," she said, adding that the company is still taking the stock of the losses.

The hospitality crisis began with a brownout in February when COVID-19 was still a distant concern and proceeded to a near total freeze the following month. In early March, the Georgian Federation of Hotels and Restaurants reported an 80 percent drop in hotel occupancy rates. Since then, some hotels have been converted into quarantine centers for thousands of suspected coronavirus carriers.

Georgian authorities initially engaged in a whack-a-mole game with the virus at borders, trying to head off potential coronavirus hosts before they entered the country. The nation kept out citizens of Iran - one of the earliest hot spots of the disease - just ahead of the Persian festival of Nowruz, when thousands of Iranians usually travel to the South Caucasus for the holiday.

As the threat of community transmission increased in March - several cases were tracked to one restaurant in Tbilisi and one to a hotel in seaside Batumi - the government tightened its internal control measures, ordering the closure of most businesses, including restaurants and hotels, restricting movement between cities and introducing curfews. By the time these measures arrived, many tourist-oriented restaurants, hotels and gathering venues had already closed due to the lack of customers.

Designer hotels Rooms and Stamba, the embodiments of the new wave in Georgian hospitality, stand idle along with popular bars and restaurants. Another serves as a quarantine center.

The Georgian government has tried to cushion the economic blow, announcing in mid-March a four-month postponement in the collection of property and income taxes from the hospitality sector. As a part of the stimulus package, the government also plans to double the rate of value-added tax returns, injecting the equivalent of $373 million back into the industry to help stave off bankruptcies and layoffs.

Hotel and restaurant owners say it is too early to judge if these measures will keep their businesses afloat. That depends how long the economic crisis lasts. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has forecasted zero economic growth in Georgia this year, in part because of the slump in tourism. "Georgia's economy is expected to bounce back with a 4.5 percent growth in 2021," ADB said on April 3, but the forecast could change for better or worse based on the pandemic's impact on global markets.

The tax breaks are doing little to alleviate economic and psychological gloom among restaurant and hotel owners, who expect the situation to worsen before it improves. Lomsadze's and Talakhadze's best option is to keep making plans for Ezo and dream about what they will do when the pandemic blows over. It's the best they can do until, as Talakhadze puts it, there is another spring.

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