By Tamar Barbakadze
If you have ever visited Georgia, chances are that you will book a return trip—just as around 70 percent of tourists used to do. They are drawn to the Black Sea’s resorts, the Caucasus Mountains, ancient churches, and the national cuisine. But the onset of the pandemic has changed everything, limiting the potential of the tourism industry as well as the sectors most closely linked to it, like hospitality and restaurants.
I’ve seen many changes in Georgia since the country gained independence in 1991. Sitting in an unheated university auditorium a few decades ago, I would have hardly imagined that a country facing near-daily power cuts that lasted up to 24 hours would one day become an energy exporter. But that day has come.
The growth in international tourism is just one of the many transformations that country has seen. Although Georgia has a population of 3.7 million, and a territory around nine times smaller than France, it has been called one of the world’s fastest-growing destinations. More than two-thirds of the country’s service export revenues came from tourism, so the sector was often known as an invisible export.
COVID-19 threatened this, as it has in so many other places. Even though the country instituted stringent measures to contain the spread of the virus early in the crisis, the easing of rules in summer 2020 contributed to a significant surge later in fall and winter. The authorities enacted a lockdown leading to a reduction of COVID-19 cases, but it was no surprise that the economy fell into recession, contracting by 6.2 percent in 2020. By the end of August 2021, Georgia had the most cases per 100,000 residents and ranked first in deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the New York Times. However, as a result of the latest measures, confirmed infections declined in September.
For me—a citizen of Georgia whose friends have lost family members and loved ones—it’s hard to talk about statistics as each day brings sad news to someone I or my friends have known or heard of.
Tamar Barbakadze. Photo courtesy: Tamar Barbakadze
During this period, I have observed many ways that the pandemic has impacted the lives of Georgians—developments that might be hard to quantify but that are meaningful and have long-term repercussions. For example, arts and cultural institutions have been struggling to overcome the effects of the pandemic. This area is often overlooked when economic assessments are made. The question of how these important elements of our culture will survive such a difficult time is still uncertain.
To learn more about the work that local leaders in the arts are doing to assure the future of their craft, I asked several people to share their stories with me.
“The pandemic has urged us to think out of the box,” said Nino Sukhishvili, the General Producer and CEO of the troupe Sukhishvili, which made folk dance one of the country’s signature cultural events by combining the elements of modern ballet and traditional Georgian choreography. The troupe was founded in 1945 and has toured the globe, performing to full houses in the Royal Albert Hall, the Coliseum, the Metropolitan Opera, Madison Square Garden, and La Scala, among others.
Nino Sukhishvili. Photo by: Badri Vadachkoria
But lockdown orders that followed COVID-19 meant that the dancers had to stay at home. The group’s popular dance schools closed their doors, leaving around 5,000 kids and teenagers without regular dancing lessons.
Liza Abaishvili, a 12-year-old student from Tbilisi, Georgia, has been dancing since she was six. “I’ve never stopped dancing until the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped all of us last year. We were saddened…When my mother got a call from our dancing teacher telling us that the troupe is going online, it sounded like a joke, but it was a glimpse of light in our dull lives at that time. In just two or three weeks, I re-started doing what I love most of all. Now I know that if you really want something, you can manage to do it in any conditions.”
The decision to launch folk classes online was boosted by the belief that “the show must go on,” said Sukhishvili. “Virtual lessons have proved to be very popular and we decided to keep those online lessons and made them accessible not only to our students, but for anyone around the world.” Now, anyone who wants to perform or watch Georgian folk dances is just one click away.
The evolution of the form is essential to the creative process, according to Nino’s younger brother, Iliko Sukhishvili Jr., Artistic Director and chief choreographer of the troupe. “Art cannot and should not stand still,” he said.
Iliko Sukhishvili Jr. Photo courtesy: Sukhishvili
This belief prompted Sukhishvili Jr. to build an open stage in the courtyard of his house on the outskirts of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. It quickly became the main site for rehearsals and performances.
The new stage, called Takara, has become the place for the creation of another new program. That’s how Sukhishvili’s project, “Artifacts,” was born. After a difficult winter period when almost all members of the ensemble had the coronavirus, the group got back to rehearsals, preparing for a new season. The shows were performed on the outdoor stage during the summer of 2021, proving again that there are no obstacles to creative thinking.
Takara, the open-air stage built so dancers could continue to rehearse and perform despite COVID-19 restrictions. Photo by: Zuka Pirtskhalaishvili
A popular activity for tourists visiting Georgia, along with tasting Georgian wine and cuisine, is shopping—especially shopping for something unique. Georgian enamel, often called cloisonne enamel, is a particular favorite. The first works of Georgian enamel art date back to the 7th and 8th centuries, and the craft flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries. The form was abandoned for centuries, but has gained popularity again.
An enamel silver ring. Photo courtesy: Maiko Magalashvili
My friend Maiko Magalashvili has been in this business for the past 15 years. She told me that with shops closed and the tourism industry in crisis, online sales through Facebook and Instagram were the only way to keep her business afloat.
“The pandemic impacted almost every area—as a result, the cost of materials and services that I use for the enamel has increased significantly,” she said. “But overall, my business was less affected by the crisis because I’ve been using digital platforms to sell my products.”
In fact, interest in her work has increased, and the online platforms have brought in orders from the U.S. and around the world. “I was lucky. I started using digital platforms a while ago and that helped me a lot. As a result, my business was not impacted by the pandemic. On the contrary, [even] amid closure of businesses, I’ve managed to increase my revenues slightly—by around 10 to 15 percent – not a bad result in the times of economic crisis and downturn, I think.”
Maiko Magalashvili. Photo by: Aleksandre Tarkhnishvili
Magalashvili’s story is not as unique as it seems. Despite the unprecedented challenges, the COVID-19 crisis offered opportunities to many other entrepreneurs in Georgia. Almost 40 percent of enterprises have launched or increased online business activity, according to the World Bank Group’s Enterprise Surveys from December 2020.
I met Nata Buachidze, an artist and the founder of an arts and language studio in Tbilisi, because she was my daughter’s painting teacher. As an arts professional, she has found herself in a completely new reality—but her small team has managed to transform quickly. After running online lessons for several months, the studio is now using a hybrid model, combining face-to-face and online lessons.
Nata Buachidze. Photo by: ARTAREA
“Not only there were no layoffs during the pandemic, but we had to hire more teachers as the demand for online classes increased dramatically. Now we even have students joining us from across the globe,” said Buachidze.
As an artist, Buachidze now exhibits her work online and participants in online exhibitions. “Interestingly, the crisis has opened up so many new opportunities that I would never ever think of,” she said.
Lana Bendukidze tells a similar story. She is a longtime friend, and two decades ago she created a new technique for artwork—painting with yarn dust and threads. Despite two successful personal exhibitions in 2019, Bendukidze could not find time to focus on her art.
The pandemic changed that. In just one year, she has created almost 40 works. Her paintings are now sold through various online platforms, including her own Facebook account.
Lana Bendukidze. Photo by: Mariam Topadze
“When I started creating paintings using this method many years ago, I would not even imagine that my paintings would be accessible to anyone online. But that’s now possible. I was thrilled to have a chance to participate in a digital exhibition called “Women in Art” along with talented amateur artists,” said Bendukidze.
These are just a few examples of how digitization has had a positive impact on arts during the pandemic. Amid unprecedented challenges and difficulties, these artists have managed to develop their craft, keep their businesses afloat, and in some cases even grow their audiences. This may be a hint of things to come: A gradual reopening of Georgia’s economy began in March 2021, leading to an unprecedented growth rate of 44.8 percent in April.
The pandemic has brought unbelievable challenges to all of us around the world—with developing countries hit particularly hard. But stories like those of the artists here give me optimism, strengthening my belief that the pandemic failed to bring to a standstill to the creative thinking, innovation, and digital transformation that Tbilisi strives to achieve.
On October 27, IFC will host “UpNext: Inside Africa’s Creative Industries,” the first-ever virtual event highlighting the importance of the creative economy and opportunities for investment and collaboration. Speakers will show how Africa’s creative industries can influence change in development challenges such as climate, jobs, education, and tech. Find out more here: www.ifc.org/UpNext
Published in October 2021