- Iranians increasingly see Georgia as an attractive tourism destination
- Georgia keen to attract investment from the region
- Experts suggest Georgia wants to court Iran but not damage U.S. relations
For Iranian tourists strolling in the sun-drenched squares in the Black Sea town of Batumi, Georgia is a pocket of hospitality in a world that has largely closed its doors to them.
In Georgia, that all changed last year when the former Soviet republic lifted its visa requirements for Iranians and the tourists started flowing in. While the numbers are still modest, Georgian government statistics show a tripling of Iranian tourists so far this year with visitors now in the tens of thousands.
"When I describe the possibilities, the potential, they are very eager, and they will come, they're very interested to come more," says Farzin Valipour, an Iranian Tourism Operator now living in Georgia.
"Georgia is very near to Iran, it is very easy to get a bus or a flight to come here... without needing a visa," gushed one Iranian visitor as she took in the historical sites in Batumi.
But there is more to this relationship than attracting sun-seeking tourists.
"Desperately seeking a way out of its energy and economic dependence on Russia, Georgia considers Iran as an alternative supplier of energy, and both sides have renewed their drive for an energy partnership," writes Kornely Kakachia of Tbilisi State University in a recent diplomatic journal.
Last month, a few dozen Iranian business leaders arrived in Georgia to seek investment opportunities in transport, agriculture and construction. And as well as having an active Iranian embassy in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Iran recently opened a consulate here in Batumi.
In fact, Iran fits into Georgia's aggressive strategy to court foreign direct investment however and wherever it can.
"Interest towards our country as a place for investment and trade has been quite high. In 2012 we've already held investment seminars practically in all counties of gulf region," says Giorgi Tsikolia, First Deputy Director at the Georgian National Investment Agency.
This is a delicate relationship though as Georgia continues to seek membership in both the EU and NATO and remains one of the strongest Western allies in the region.
Neither Iran nor Georgia was eager to discuss the growing relationship beyond published statements and for good reason. Georgia does not want to be seen as skirting U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Iran.
Iranian business people we spoke to here would not disclose how sanctions were handled in Georgia except to say that the sanctions pose hurdles in all countries in which they try to do business.
In fact, Georgia has been a shrewd geopolitical player especially since it now believes it is no longer a U.S. policy priority in the region.
"Georgia's current policy toward Iran is not irrational. Closer relations with Iran, despite extremely tense relations between Washington and Tehran, is an indication of Tbilisi's disillusionment with what it sees as the West's weakening interest in Georgia, as well as its desire to expand its room for maneuvering, politically and economically," writes Kakachia.
For now, the U.S. continues to claim that Iran is becoming more isolated financially and diplomatically. That may be true in many places around the world, but not here in Georgia.