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Russians hit out at Kremlin ban on flights to Georgia

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Moscow (AFP)

Russia's travel industry and ordinary Russians hit 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 pro-Western Georgia from July 8 late Friday in response to anti-government rallies in the ex-Soviet neighbour.

The protests were 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."

Authorities recommended travel companies stop selling holiday packages to Georgia and advised Russian tourists to return home.

Many ordinary Russians bristled at the Kremlin's latest initiative, while key players in the industry said they were blindsided by the move.

"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.

- Industry losses -

The ban during high season is expected to hit the travel industry in both countries hard and become a major nuisance for Russian holidaymakers.

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.

Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Union, refused to say whether the ban was justified, adding she did not comment on 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.

According to the transportation ministry, the issue was discussed at a meeting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Maxim Akimov on Saturday.

Airline customers were returning their tickets "en masse," the ministry said.

"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.

"Why are they deciding for us what we cannot eat, where we cannot fly, who we cannot be friends with?" Elena Chekalova, a prominent chef and culinary blogger, wrote on Facebook.

Yan Nalimov, writing on social media, said the "political ambitions of some people are destroying the business of those who simply want to work and make money."

- Simmering discontent -

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.

"Why is Putin punishing Russians for Georgian protests?"

There was no immediate reaction from the Georgian authorities, but a senior government official in Tbilisi said the Kremlin ban was politically motivated.

"Putin's decision is of course political and has nothing to do with safety concerns," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Historically, Georgia has been one of the Russian tourists' favourite destinations and Putin can't change this with a stroke of his pen."

Georgian airlines were continuing to sell tickets to Russia on Saturday, but it was not immediately clear whether they would be affected by the ban at a later stage.

The latest restrictions are expected to further fuel simmering discontent with Kremlin policies.

Since 2014, Russians have been chafing under numerous rounds of Western sanctions over Moscow's role in Ukraine and other crises, with real incomes falling for the fifth year in a row.

During an annual phone-in with Russians this week, Putin dismissed calls to "reconcile" with the West to alleviate economic hardship, saying Moscow needed to protect its interests and "nothing" would change anyway.

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