By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Patriotic Georgian homeowners are making use of their property in an unusual way - by inviting strangers to stay for free, amid fears that a spat with Russia will hurt the country's economy.
Local homeowners have been fighting back with freebies after Russia announced it will suspend flights to Georgia from July 8, in a grassroots social media campaign to encourage visitors to holiday in the tourism-reliant Caucasian nation.
"I decided to do this to raise awareness about Georgia ... and help the economy," said Ani Nikolaishvili, a 28-year-old who normally rents her Tbilisi apartment for $40 a night but was now waving all fees for the first five days of each guest's stay.
Violent protests broke out in front of Georgia's parliament last week after the visit of a Russian lawmaker, leading President Vladimir Putin to recommend Russian travel agencies suspend tours to the former Soviet republic.
Putin also ordered the government to bring Russian tourists already there home. More than 1 million Russians visit Georgia each year - accounting for 20% of all tourists who holiday in Georgia, renowned for its wines and ancient monasteries.
Hundreds of people, including Detroit Pistons basketball star Zaza Pachulia - the first Georgian to win an NBA title - and the British ambassador in Tbilisi, have embarked on an online charm offensive, including complimentary wine, to tempt tourists.
Many users posted photos of the Georgia's sights, while others offered heavily discounted rates, such as homeowner, Tamila Gvelesiani, who wrote she would knock 80% off the price of her Airbnb listings.
The campaign, backed by the Georgian National Tourism Administration, came as many Airbnb owners reported Russian tourists were cancelling their reservations en masse due to the political turmoil.
Resentment has long simmered among Georgia's 4.5 million people, who feel angry and humiliated they have to maintain friendly ties with Moscow, even though Russia briefly invaded their country in 2008 and backs two breakaway regions.
Georgian bank TBC estimated Russian visits to the country might fall 50% over the next year, costing the country about $330 million in lost revenue.
But many Georgians were hopeful visitors from other countries would make up for the shortfall.
A Facebook group urging holidaymakers to spend their summer in Georgia attracted more than 170,000 members in a few days. Users promised to treat tourists with airport pick-ups, free walking tours, homemade cheese-bread or a glass of wine.
"We can't just be dependent on Russians," said Niko Anjaparidze, co-founder of Airbnb managing company Wehost, which plans to advertise its more than 170 properties on a Chinese home-sharing platform after about 20 Russian guests cancelled.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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