Georgia has always been a cross-roads of civilization. It was here that Europe’s oldest hominid fossils were discovered – ancient ancestors of Homo erectus that crossed Eurasia.
Fast-forward millions of years. The ancient Silk Road, the trading route between Asia and Europe, was built of many threads connecting the cultures of East and West. A thriving cross-cultural exchange was woven together, encompassing diverse aspects of life, from culture to technology.
Fast-forward to today. A new silk road is emerging, and once again Georgia is at the core. Its threads are not so different to those of the ancient world. It is founded on trade. Georgia has long played a crucial part as a secure transit country for natural resources from Eurasia into Europe. Just as caravans would pass through towards the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean, today Georgia’s Black Sea ports pass energy supplies from the Caspian to Europe and beyond.
Given its strategic location, Georgia’s security and political stability are key to its role as an East-West trade hub. A close relationship with the EU, formalised in an Association Agreement in 2014, has enhanced Georgia’s credentials as a trading partner. Sir Suma Chakrabarti, President of the EBRD recently noted that ‘investors looking for the next success story would be well advised to take a closer look’ at Georgia.
This is reflected in Georgia’s outstanding economic performance. GDP has climbed steadily since 2009; in 2019 average annual GDP growth hit 5% year on year. Georgia’s role at the centre of the new silk road has blessed it with a diverse, entrepreneurial, fast developing economy.
Just look at Silknet – a regional internet wholesaler, and part of the Silk Road Group. Silknet already counts on physical connections to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia and Turkey, and links Frankfurt and Sofia with Baku. Just as demand for Chinese silks built the ancient trade routes, I look forward to welcoming Chinese internet traffic, building a great digital silk road for the internet age.
Attending this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos with Silknet, I signed an agreement to bring broadband services to all parts of Georgia, under the umbrella of the EU4Digital Initiative. Such schemes create opportunities for businesses to thrive and have helped Georgia reach seventh place in the World Bank’s 2020 ease of doing business rankings. Technology is one of the new threads being woven together in Georgia to link the world’s economies.
The silk road was not only a trading route; we are proud to help weave culture and education into the fabric of the new silk road. Silk Road Group owns the Georgian franchise of National Geographic magazine, for example – as well as having restored the Tsinandali Estate, home of famous Georgian poet, Alexander Chavchavadze.
Just as in the ancient world, wine plays a central part in Georgian culture. Georgia introduced winemaking to the world 8,000 years ago. Once again, wine is an industry building links between East and West. Georgia exports wine to 55 countries, with China the number three destination. Silk Road Group’s winery at the Tsinandali Estate, which dates from the 17th Century, now exports vintages to customers across Europe.
In September 2019 I was privileged to host an international festival of classical music at the Estate. The Tsinandali Festival welcomes some of the greatest artists from around the globe. In its inaugural year the festival embodied the revived silk road, creating a permanent legacy for the region through the founding of the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra. We look forward to welcoming a similarly impressive line up in 2020.
Wine and music are only two reasons that tourists are discovering Georgia. 9.3 million visit every year, European arrivals increasing by ten percent year on year for several years. The growth of China’s middle class saw 48,000 travellers visit last year, up from 18,000 two years previously. We are developing the Batumi Riviera, to place Georgia’s Black Sea port city among the top ranks of international beachside destinations. In ancient times, silk road voyagers rested at caravanserais. Silk Road Group is building their descendants: hotels to accommodate new waves of tourists.
Many are winter travellers, as skiers from East and West discover Georgia’s potential. The country is confirmed to host the FIS Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships in 2023. I am proud that for over 20 years, Silk Road Group and Silknet have sponsored both the Georgian Ski Federation and the National Ski Team. With China and Kazakhstan joining the global winter sports community, the Caucasus mountains are emerging as a bridge between the Alps and the Tian Shan.
I founded Silk Road Group in 1996, following in the footsteps of my ancient Georgian forebears, developing transport links along what was the ancient Silk Road. Through many journeys from East to West, we’ve invested $1 billion in the Georgian economy, in technology, energy, culture and hospitality, but all with one concept in mind: the opportunity of the new silk road. Today, Georgia is firmly established as a bridge between Europe and Asia. There are yet more opportunities at this crossroads of cultures.