Passengers walk past a departure board at Sheremetyevo international airport in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 8, 2019. The Russian government's ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia came into effect on Monday, affecting thousands of travelers. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Russia's flight ban for Georgia takes effect

July 08, 2019 - 8:05 am

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — A Russian government ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia went into force Monday, affecting thousands of travelers and dealing a serious blow to Georgia's tourism industry.

The ban impacted dozens of flights operated by six Russian airlines and one Georgian airline.

The last direct flight between the two countries before the flight ban took effect landed in Moscow on Sunday evening. Travelers will have to stop at airports in other countries, which will add at least an hour and a half of extra travel time, while the ban is in place.

President Vladimir Putin introduced the ban last month following violent protests in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, set off by a Russian lawmaker's visit to Georgia's parliament.

The appearance, which included the lawmaker taking the seat of the Georgian parliament speaker, stoked animosity over Russia's support for Georgia's two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The South Caucasus nation with scenic mountains, lush sea coast and renowned wine culture hosts more than 1 million Russian tourists a year.

Oksana Litvyak, who lives in the Russian town of Tosno outside St. Petersburg, grew up in Georgia and her parents and sister still are there. Litvyak bought airline tickets to go to Tbilisi in August the day before the Georgian parliament protests.

"I broke down and cried and got really angry but then started looking for new tickets," she said. "This ban has hit ordinary people the worst because Russia and Georgia are tied together by centuries of history."

Litvyak has since gotten a refund for the flight and eventually found cheaper tickets on a Belarusian airline flight that will involve a layover in Minsk.

Russian tourists who were in Georgia's capital on Monday said they would keep coming back to enjoy the mountains, seaside and food.

"I don't think that (the flight ban) will stop tourists coming to Georgia because who has been here, they will definitely return," said Marina Bondareva, who is from Moscow.

Hotel owners and travel guides were estimating losses from a disrupted tourist season.

Rusudan Japaridze, a tour guide in a Tbilisi travel agency, said the flight ban already had hurt bookings through October. Japaridze said 80% of Russian-language tour guides were left without work, citing his agency's figures.

"This is a total collapse of the segment that worked for the Russian market," Japaridze said,

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Irina Titova in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.