The FINANCIAL — High speeds and rushing adrenaline, crashing water and a feeling of freedom. “Rafting is really amazing, one moment a wave unexpectedly crashes over your head then after a few seconds you are sailing through the air.” When rafting, Shotiko Kiparoidze, 21, feels the full power of rivers and freedom.
This activity can be found in Pshavi, a mountainous region in northern Georgia, one of the many areas where rafting is possible. Crashing through waves on Georgian rivers is just one of the activities ecotourism in the country can offer.
Ecotourism 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.
A green treasure. Still ecotourism is not developed to its fullest potential.
“Only 32 percent of the tourist demand is for eco and adventure tours, the majority, 65 percent, is focused on cultural tours,” said Wato Asatashvili, Deputy Chairman of the Department for Tourism and Resorts at the Ministry of Economic Development.
“The lack of development in ecotourism has only one reason, money,” said Ia Tabagari, General Director of the travel agency Caucasus Travel, “Not enough time, energy and financial resources for marketing have been spent on sponsoring Georgia internationally as a perfect destination for ecotourim,” according to Tabagari, ecotourism should be sponsored along with cultural and religious excursions, not as a separate niche.
As the sector is still underdeveloped, even estimates of the revenues are difficult to make.
“Marketing calculations must be done by the actual companies, the tour-operators,” explained Asatashvili, “We can’t make any marketing plans for the improved sales of private tour-operators. We are the Government and they are business. So if it happened it would be direct interference in private business by the Government.”
The Department of Tourism sponsors ecotourism with advertising campaigns abroad especially, international exhibitions, congresses, conferences, radio and TV actions and some print articles.
Hans Heiner Buhr, a German national who has lived in Tbilisi for 12 years and runs a tour operator targeting German tourists is not optimistic.
“We do not offer ecotourism, it is too difficult here,” he said. “I was in Bakuriani recently: I saw a large landfill right in the middle of beautiful nature, in a place where the most ugly hotels are built without consideration for the landscape, and where billionaires can cut down forests as they please purely for the development of new ski slopes. Real ecotourism is not possible in Georgia right now.”
A change of Georgian character and culture is needed. It is ironic that Georgians are so proud of their country and nature but don’t actually take care of it. If people keep on dropping litter in the countryside then tourists won’t come to the mountains anymore as they will be too polluted.
He has a point: if there is rubbish everywhere, if woods are cleared to make way for massive hotels, then there is no space for ecotourism. The sector then should target Georgians as well, not only foreigners. Currently offers are tailored for foreign travellers who can afford expensive trips to remote areas.
“Ecotourism isn’t a profitable business,” said Tabagari. “Every tour-operator has these services but they aren’t their priority. The priority is cultural tourism.” Travel agency Geoatlas Tour arranges eco-tours: their customers come mainly from abroad.
Developing internal tourism is essential for ecotourism. But according to Qamushadze Georgians are sceptical about it. “They know exactly where they want to go and what they want to do. They don’t need any tour-operators just to travel around their own country and to book a hotel for them,” she said.
The Department of Tourism is actively working on getting Georgians traveling in the country. Festivals, sport activities and concerts are organized in key locations. According to Asatashvili since the first action Svanseti in 2007 which was the first big camping trip organised in Svaneti before the latest one in Vardzia last month, the aftereffect has significantly grown.
Kristine Asatiani, chief specialist of developing service at the Ministry of Environment Protection and Natural Recourses disagrees with this grim vision. She says that 65-70 percent of visitors in national parks are Georgians. The rest come mainly from Israel, Turkey, Germany and Holland.
The number of visitors as well as income of the Protected Areas and National parks is constantly growing. That means that the country’s prospects have begun developing. If nothing stops this trend then soon ecotourism will become one of the Georgia’s main directions.
Number of visitors
Explaining to local communities that they can benefit from a new vision of tourism is the key to development. “People have started thinking differently,” explained Tabagari,” They are realizing that these areas are their life, their future and their business.” Guest-houses, house renting, guide services and horse riding can revitalize local economies.
The hotel offer is limited in most national parks, guest houses are then a sustainable and cheap alternative with prices ranging between 30 and 40 GEL a day, including meals. There are similar prices for tour guides, with averages of 30 seasonal guides in every park.
Horse riding is a popular activity. Lagodekhi Protected Area is the only one which has its own horses, generally the parks’ administration have seasonal contracts with locals and share the revenues with them. If one horse costs 30 GEL per tour, then 5 GEL would go to the park administration and 25 GEL to the horse owner.
Ecotourism can change people’s lives and make living in mountain areas sustainable. “The economic situation of local communities has really improved,” stressed Asatiani. “We are constantly trying to do more for them.”
Again, estimates about the economic impact are difficult, although the Government is working with the European Union and other organizations on how to measure the financial impact of ecotourism.
The high Caucasus range in Svaneti and the Borjom-Kharagauli National park are the top eco-destinations in Georgia.
Ivan Zec, from Croatia, has been planning to visit Svaneti for ten years. Finally he’s managed to; 1,000 EUR a person and in August he’ll be there with a group of friends. “When I first saw pictures of the high mountains of Svaneti and the stunning ancient towers there, I decided I had to see them for myself,” said Zec. “I think that Georgia is a great place for ecotourism. But at the same time I’m inspired by its culture, peromanesque art, churches and monasteries.”