Russians hit out at Kemlin ban on flights to Georgia

Moscow (AFP) –


Russia's travel industryhit out Saturday at a decision by the Kremlin to suspend flights to Georgia as a politically motivated move that has little to do with safety concerns.

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree banning Russian airlines from flying to Georgia from July 8 late Friday in response to anti-government rallies in the ex-Soviet neighbour.

The outbreak of protests was sparked by a parliamentary address in Tbilisi by a Moscow lawmaker earlier this week.

The Kremlin said the ban was to "ensure Russia's national security and protect Russian nationals from criminal and other unlawful activities" and a taskforce was being put together to oversee the return of Russians from Georgia.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief but bloody war in 2008 and tensions between the two governments remain high.

Georgia -- known for its picturesque Black Sea resorts, rich national cuisine and generous hospitality -- has emerged as one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists over the past few years, with more than 1.3 million visiting last year.

The Kremlin ban during high season is expected to hit the two countries' travel industries hard and become a major nuisance for Russian holidaymakers.

"Tourism in Georgia is on the rise, and the decision has shocked the whole industry," Aleksan Mkrtchyan, head of Pink Elephant, a chain of travel agencies, said in a statement.

Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Union, was more tight-lipped, declining to comment on what she said were political matters.

But the general consensus within the industry was that Georgia was not a dangerous destination, she said.

"Georgians have traditionally treated Russians well," Tyurina told AFP.

It was too early to estimate any potential industry losses stemming from the ban, she said.

Russian travellers were also critical.

"This ban is silly," Margarita Semyonova, a 19-year-old student, who visited Georgia last year, told AFP, suggesting that everyday Russians and the Georgian travel industry would suffer.

Elena Chekalova, a prominent chef and culinary blogger, said the latest Kremlin ban "shocked" her.

"Why are they deciding for us what we cannot eat, where we cannot fly, who we cannot be friends with?" she wrote on Facebook.

Moscow has suspended flights to Georgia before -- during a spike in tensions in October 2006 and in August 2008 following the outbreak of a five-day war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Putin decided to punish Georgia because there are street protests there," opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Twitter.