Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cultural Diplomacy - by Georgia (feat. MTV)

Had been idle for quite some time, for which I owe an apology: had some serious catching up to do (apparently, ten days can seem much longer in certain cases), which also overlapped with the New Year's celebrations - the greater holiday of the season for me. (Side Note #1: Happy New 2011!)

Yet, there has been a very peculiar (for the lack of a better word) public diplomacy-related development in Georgia, which I wanted to address. Apparently, Mr. Saakashvili, who has been described as "a bit of a showman", is close to striking a deal with MTV to promote the image of his country abroad.

Black Sea town of Batumi. Photo courtesy of Foreign Policy.

The idea? A free concert in Batumi (at the Black Sea coast) some time May-June 2011, featuring international superstars.
Objective? Attract thousands of additional tourists to the small Caucasian country.
Price tag? $2 million+ (as reported by EurasiaNet.)
Funding sources? Government and some corporate.
Precedent? "Isle of MTV Malta" concert series, which supposedly brought over 50,000 concert-goers to the small Mediterranean island.
Target audience? Umm... Well. Seemingly, unknown.

That last point might prove to be the problem. Indeed, Georgia's Black Sea coast used to be one of the best (if not the best - that is arguable, of course, depending on whom you ask) resorts in the Soviet Union. But those times are long gone and enthusiastically forgotten, especially in Georgia, for better or worse.The degradation and lack of maintenance of the already existing tourism infrastructure, coupled with the economic hardship of the transition couldn't have harmed the region more. More importantly, however, I don't even want to get started on the impact that the wars - since the early 1990s, but particularly the one with Russia in 2008 - had on Georgia's "tourism" image.

Over the recent years, of course, there has been a massive attempt by the government to revitalize the tourism sector; however, reaching 10 million tourists in a season might be way too far off at the moment.

So, who would go to Georgia? Obviously, there is substantial "internal tourism", and yet, Saakashvili seems to have the foreigners in mind. OK. Immediate region: Azeris? Maybe. Yet, they have whatever's left of the beautiful Caspian shores to enjoy. Russians? Mostly no, for obvious reasons. Iranians? Maybe, especially in light of the recently introduced visa-free travel agreement between the two countries. (But, Iran is not the best "friend" to have or rely upon at the moment, particularly after all the overtures made to the West.)

Armenians? Certainly. Every summer, thousands flock to Georgia's coastal towns from Armenia - given the affordability, relative ease and short time of travel, but most importantly, the fact of Armenia itself is landlocked (i.e. no beaches, no matter how rocky or polluted) - and will probably continue doing so, even without any public diplomacy efforts from Georgia. The Turks? They've got awesome beaches of their own, with much more excitement and entertainment, I believe.

However, the "Western" public would obviously be the major desired tourist population for Georgia's development strategists. When so many associate "Georgia" solely with the U.S. State, while Caucasian only means "White", Saakashvili has a serious task at hand. What is more, merely rationally-speaking, very few people outside of the immediate region would consider visiting. It might prove too expensive and far away to travel across the Atlantic, or even from Western Europe, while there is an abundance of more established alternatives (oh, and the gorgeous beaches of the Mediterranean, the Caribbean or the Atlantic, for that matter) that are much more easily available. Then, the issue of proper infrastructure? Perceived security?

In that sense, bringing in the "cultural" diplomacy initiative that involves MTV might sound like a terrific idea.

Cartoon courtesy of Donklephant.

It will take a long time, however, and might prove to be too expensive: if it materializes, the festival will have to be an annual, televised event. The first time will most surely fail to attract the desired levels of attendees from the West. But if it is broadcast internationally and becomes a part of MTV's "special programming", it might, over time, get the interest of Western "audiences", as well. This will require a lot of investment, however, not only to ensure that the event makes a long-lasting and Earth-shattering impression over TV (so as next time viewers actually choose to be there in person), but also to make sure that the region can actually accommodate the demanding Western customers.

After all, charming potential tourists with barely-clad young women on MTV would certainly guarantee more success in public diplomacy than going down the G(eography)H(istory)C(ulture) route. The initiative has been launched and certain projects are apparently underway. As to how it goes later, remains to be seen.

[Side Note #2: Here, I cannot but refer to the issue over Georgia's Eurovision song in 2009, the year when Moscow was hosting the contest. Another "cultural diplomacy" attempt by Saakashvili (whether successful or not, is debatable). Here are some excerpts from the song's lyrics, which was banned by the overseeing committee and eventually made Georgia to pull out of the contest altogether:

Another glass of my moonshine
Will kick the hell out of me
But let me focus on good stuff
Some good stuff, just good stuff

We don’t wanna put in the negative move
It’s killing the groove
I’m trying to shoot in some disco tonight
Boogie with you
I like all Europe contries, and I love Europa
Say: give me sexy yeaah
Give me sexy yeaah

And to get a real feel of "truly" Georgian cultural potential, I would suggest that you watch the music video, too:

I'm just curious to know if the diner is genuine. If so, did they come all the way to this side of the Atlantic to shoot the video, or did the President commission a special eatery to cater to the healthy food needs of his people after the music clip was released? (Smells like a juicy business opportunity, with a built-in marketing mechanism!)]

In short - watch Global Chaos (and MTV, if you so wish) for further updates.

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