TBILISI: Pro-Western former Soviet republic of Georgia on Tuesday hailed the "historic" first day of visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens as a waiver agreed with the European Union entered into force.
The new regulation allows Georgians to travel to the EU for non-work purposes for up to 90 days, over any 180-day period, but does not apply to the United Kingdom or Ireland.
"Historic day for Georgia to enjoy visa free travel to the EU! Thanks to our friends! Go Georgia towards European integration!" Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili wrote on Twitter.
To celebrate the first visa-free travel day, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and his cabinet members, some MPs and a group of students flew from Tbilisi to Athens, and then on to the Belgian capital, Brussels.
"Georgia is returning to the European family," Kvirikashvili tweeted. "Today, together with students, we are travelling to the oldest cultural capital of Europe -- Athens... Midday, we will travel to the political capital of Europe -- Brussels -- to celebrate this big achievement," he said in separate televised remarks.
Georgia and Ukraine, a much larger former Soviet state, have long urged the EU to grant visa-free travel to help deepen ties with the West, but their efforts have been greeted with hostility and suspicion in their Soviet-era master Russia.
Visa-free EU travel for Ukrainians is expected to enter into force this summer.
Originally the plan prompted concerns that Georgians and Ukrainians might abuse the system and stay on illegally in the European Union, which is still grappling with challenges related to the massive influx of migrants in 2015.
The bloc revised its plan in December in order to allow visa requirements to be reintroduced at short notice in case of mass violations of the 90-day limit on stays, or if there is a surge in asylum applications.
Leading up to this reform, Georgia has carried out sweeping reforms, at the EU´s request, to address issues of document security, border management, migration and asylum.