The FINANCIAL -- The Georgian National Tourism Agency (GNTA) will be starting intensive work to develop eco-tourism in September 2012.
This is one of the most profitable tourism directions in Georgia and at the same time the potential of the country in this regard is significant. In total Georgia is expecting 3.5 million tourists in 2012 and Maia Sidamonidze, Head of the GNTA, predicts that eco-tourists will make up quite a large share of the total number.
Eco-tourism is responsible travel, close proximity to nature, an alternative way to travel that respects the environment and improves the conditions of local communities. It’s a broad term that comprises various activities - from sports like rafting to culture like studying the traditions of Svaneti’s towers.
Ranked 12th country in the world for its biodiversity, the sector has great opportunities in Georgia. Almost half a million hectares are Protected Areas in Georgia, about 7 percent of the country’s territory. About 75 percent of these are covered by forests. There are 14 Strict Nature Reserves, 8 National Parks, 12 Managed Nature Reserves, 14 Natural Monuments and 2 Protected Landscapes in Georgia.
“Currently Georgia holds a niche of cultural and adventure destination,” Sidamonidze told The FINANCIAL. “But we are developing other directions as well including eco-tourism. For example in 2010 3 percent of all tourists came for MICE but in 2011 the number totalled 10 percent. The number of visitors for eco-tourism is predicted to grow as rapidly as this as well.”
“Currently we are working to promote health-tourism in Georgia and in September we will be starting intensive work on eco-tourism development,” she added.
Q. How would you assess the potential of eco-tourism in Georgia?
A. Georgia is very strong in this direction. Eco-tourism is one of the directions which is in the process of development. Lots of tourists will come here for the green treasures which the country possesses. There are plenty of protected areas and natural reserves in all the regions of Georgia. Eco-tourism is very important because of its concept as well. This automatically means that these sorts of tourists are preserving the environment and community where they travel to. Lots of travellers love the inherent nature of Georgia. This direction of tourism is developed in many countries and I think that it will soon be booming in Georgia.
Q. Which region is the most attractive in terms of eco-tourism? Which one receives the most eco-tourists?
A. Each region of Georgia has big potential for tourism development and especially for eco-tourism. Western as well as Eastern Georgia is rich in terms of natural treasure. While Kakheti has three protected areas, Samegrelo is well-known for its canyons. But still lots of visitors travel to the protected areas and especially in Kakheti as there are several of them there. Borjom-Kharagauli Park plays a vital role in the development of eco-tourism. Racha is very important as well.
Q. What projects are being implemented currently in terms of eco-tourism development?
A. The fact that Georgia has such big potential in this sphere must be advertised. We are working to increase access to this information across the world. We bring travel agencies and journalists specifically to info-tours. Later these journalists write about Georgia as an eco-destination. Meanwhile we also participate in many exhibitions and fairs in many countries. All these support eco-tourism development in the country. We are making special tourist lines and these give the possibility to foreigners to plan their tours themselves.
Q. Is eco-tourism a profitable direction of tourism in general?
A. Certainly! The latest global tendencies show that more and more people are travelling to countries where the ecological situation is good and they have access to ecological products. This trend is fast-growing. Practice shows that wealthier people prefer such tours and therefore they spend more. So development of eco-tourism is quite profitable for Georgia.
Q. Which are the main countries where there is demand for eco-tourism? In which countries do you promote Georgia as an eco-destination?
A. The biggest demand comes from Western Europe, America and Asia. Therefore we promote Georgia in these regions. Tourists from Georgia’s neighbouring and other post-soviet countries come mostly for sea and winter resorts as well as for MICE tourism. We have diversified products for a diversified market and this is great. This gives us more possibility to develop more products on higher levels.
Q. Which position does eco-tourism hold among tourism directions in terms of the number of tourists in Georgia?
A. Eco-tourism is in the first three directions. Cultural tourism holds first place as more and more people are interested in the culture of Georgia. Then comes MICE tourism, recreation and adventure tourism combined with eco-tourism. This is quite a good indicator but the potential is much higher. Awareness has to be increased. On the other hand, routes have to be established and marked.
Q. What are the main problems impeding the development of eco-tourism?
A. We are in the process of developing this direction. So first of all the development of products is very important. Joining international organizations working for the development of eco-tourism is very important as well. We have to study the demand and offer new products accordingly. We have to package our products so that lots of tourists come for them.
The lack of purity and cleanness in some places is a problem as well. Cleanness is the most important thing for eco-tourism. We are working on this and hope to find a solution to the problem soon.
Q. What about service quality, isn’t it a problem for eco-tourism development?
A. Everything depends on the level of development. When there is increased demand, quality of service will grow as well. Quality of service is already developed up to a certain extent in Georgia and this process continues to develop. Protected areas and natural preserves have their own guides and rangers. This is already good. Quality will form on a par with demand.
Q. Is internal tourism developed in Georgia? What effect can it have on attracting more foreign visitors?
A. Protected areas and natural preserves are full of Georgian visitors. This trend is growing and is important for attracting foreigners. Internal tourism has to be developed first.
According to the official prognosis Georgia is expecting 3.5 million foreign visitors in 2012. We have received 700,000 tourists thus far in the first quarter of 2012, which is 40 percent more compared to the same period of 2011. Still the majority of tourists are coming for cultural tours.