The FINANCIAL — I once worked with the IFC/World Bank group’s South Pacific Project Facility, charged with the responsibility of supporting government and the private sector to accelerate economic development in the South Pacific islands nations.
South Pacific is an untouched paradise of white sandy beaches, wonderful coral coves, mountains, rivers, volcanoes, a deep ocean, thousands of islands, clean and fresh air and very small population across thousands of miles. From French Polynesia with descendants from the Maori tribe to the Melanesians in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, to Fiji with its mix of Indians and native Fijians, from Samoa to Tonga, South Pacific’s biggest resource is its nature, in all its glories.
In developing a fast-track strategy to generate employment and give people a sense of purpose and direction in earning a living, we began to focus on eco tourism. Within years, hundreds of small resorts, some as small as 10-room facilities, sprung up in the region, dotted with some of the more luxurious and larger resorts catering to more sophisticated and higher priced clientele. When I met Prime Minister Maxime Carlot Korman of Vanuatu for the first time, he proudly showed me volumes of master-plans for tourism development, donor-funded and developed by tourism specialists and which gathered months and years of dust on his shelves. My advice to him was to move all the documents into a cold storage and go ahead with some critical decisions to actively promote eco tourism. Vanuatu was one of the countries which took the lead and became a major success story. From there, the concept of eco tourism took root and spread among the entire South Pacific, becoming a critical income and employment generator.
Eco tourism is about the enjoyment of nature in its raw, in its wild, in its untamed beauty and discovering your own self in it. It is the combination of both aspects, not just about taking thousands of photos of flowers, birds, rivers, animals and indeed of people inhabiting those locations. It is about implanting a venture in the heart of a village, somewhat untouched by the vagaries of modern life, its traffic, its noise, the pollution and the artificiality of existence where we all create a certain facade and image of how others wish to perceive us. It is about allowing the genuine visitor, in search of something sublime, to “engage” with the core essence and power of nature, understand it and bring back home a certain definition of purpose, and perhaps a life changing experience. Eco tourism is at the heart of achieving those inner human aspirations which are often forgotten in the hurly-burly of life’s pursuits.
A firmer understanding of this very specific human paradigm is essential for planners because the sharp definition of the eco tourism product to be offered in various regions and locations in Georgia will determine the trajectory of the industry’s development, the investments, target market for visitors, pricing, sustainability and indeed the rural economic uplift. Maia Sidamonidze, Georgian National Tourism Agency’s director has decided to launch eco tourism industry promotion strategies in September this year. It is an important strategic initiative and would mean much to the development of rural Georgia.
To begin with, eco tourism ventures need not be and should not be isolated pockets of resort facilities where visitors come and wander around looking for something exciting to do like bungee jumping, hand-gliding, white water rafting, horse-riding and trekking. These are common resort features and indeed seem to attract especially the younger and more physically fit visitors. What is challenging is to define each resort, in each location in a specific region and develop a unique set of products which are totally aligned to that location, it’s nature foot print, the people and their cultures with their specific food, wines, music and folklore and traditions. Each resort must have its own brand.
At the same time, if eco tourism is expected to lift rural economies, those resorts need to ensure that locals are adequately trained to provide the services with a sense of excellence – from making the beds, serving breakfast and dinners, providing therapies – and that much of the rural farm produce, music, handicrafts and other artefacts are made into money spinners for the rural people. The villagers must, of necessity, become the most important support system for eco tourism development and operation.
There are also a number of other, narrowly defined and developed products, which can be offered, depending on locations and the natural resources available. Some of the most popular eco resorts cater to specific health facilities. Georgia has its natural hot and cold water springs which contain therapeutic minerals, organic vegetables and herbs, organic eggs, meat and poultry. In addition, the villagers have a long tradition of genuine and spontaneous hospitality. All these features can be creatively combined to offer a discerning visitor a high value and higher priced product which can create a niche demand.
There are some key issues in developing and sustaining eco tourism development in Georgia. Top of the priority list is locations and infrastructure facilities to access those locations. In Georgia, there are many very attractive locations, in all regions. The Government does have a proactive policy and support system for tourism development and in most cases, it is willing and able to provide infrastructure facilities at its own cost. The other is investments. Eco tourism projects, well designed and developed, can be at a modest $20,000 per room which would include land, construction, furnish, equip and fit-out. Pay back of capital at this level of investment is often 2 years or less, depending on occupancy and net room rates. At this level of investment, a 25-room resort would cost $500,000 – an investment that would be most attractive to overseas investors. On a realistic basis, attracting this level of investment is plain simple. There are many Georgian businesses which are financially and operationally capable as well.
Market for eco tourism is well established. There is global demand for specialised tourism products and the net room rates are often a not a critical issue. Visitors are willing to pay better prices provided the product quality is high and consistent; safety and security is assured and that the local village attitude to visitors is welcoming. If the above are in place, there is no need for aggressive marketing. Knowledge of the existence of superior eco tourism facilities will attract tour operators and visitors constantly searching for something special.
In my view, the most critical and culturally sensitive issue in Georgia concerns the service industry in tourism and hospitality – from the time of arrival at the airport, to the transportation, hospitality and all other eco-tourism related services. There is a huge gap here and it needs to be filled as part of the overall strategy for eco tourism development. Training is one important facet of services capacity building. Training should also take into account a certain attitude that visitors spend time and money to come to Georgia not only to enjoy the country’s nature and its people, but also to feel that they are well looked after and cared for, in every detail. This aspect of service is the most important plank of eco tourism development and it sustainability.
Adrian Zekar was an Indonesian journalist who had a dream of operating unique resorts. With his first two boutique resorts of Amandari and Amanpuri, he set a global benchmark for the hospitality services industry at its best and re-defined resorts operations. Every detail from the room to the menu, from relaxation to therapies were so meticulously taken care of that the resorts charged an average $4000 a night and had 100 per cent occupancy levels. If Georgia’s eco tourism strategy sets out to provide top grade services with total client satisfaction at $400 a night, somewhat similar to Amandari, Amanpuri and Caracosa, the industry will be a clean winner.