Svaneti in Dede – a battle between tradition and progress. Has tourism had a role to play?

 

Seeing the old Svan traditions in a fascinating and incredibly moving film Dede, filmed in a remote mountainous region of Svaneti, made me realise how little we know of this popular tourism destination in Georgia, and how this makes the relationship between the “hosts and the guests” pretty fragile.

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Ushguli in Dede. Credit: Karlove Vary Int Film Festival KVIFF

Some of the traditions are now gone, some have been modified. As I watched, I wondered whether any of these changes have happened because of tourism? And whether seeing the film would discourage or encourage tourist to travel there?

Interestingly, during a Q&As session after the film one of the main actors said: “a lot has changed in Svaneti. We are open to tourists now, please come and visit”. As if he had to reassure the audience that the people have moved on, the place is fairer now and women are more equal. That they are not forced to marry or forced to abandon their bellowed children for men they don’t want to be with.

Svaneti in Dede

I saw ‘Dede’ last week as part of the incredible Georgian Film Festival in London, with half of the films showing directed by women (as opposed to 3 out of 21 in Cannes this week). Dede has won many awards, including the Grand Prix at Cannes 2017, Winner of the UNESCO award at the Asia Pacific Screen awards 2017, Winner of Audience award at the Montpelier Mediterranean Film Festival and Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2017.

 

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Credit: Marta  Mills

 

Dede was filmed in Svaneti, a remote region in northwest of Georgia I have written about a few times before. Sometimes referred to as “the Switzerland of the Caucasus”, with its alpine valleys, glaciers and nearly 5,000m-high snow-capped peaks, Svaneti is stunningly beautiful and it is one of the most popular hiking destination in Georgia. It is also fascinating from the cultural angle – the ethnic Svans have their own unique language, architecture, cuisine, culture, religious beliefs and traditions. And these old traditions are being “examined” in Dede.

The film starts with a scene of two men coming back home from a war, but as one of the critics said, the film details a “war is fought not between nations or political ideologies, but between women and men, and its frontline is a battle between tradition and progress”.

It shows traditions of the high mountainous villages that have remained the same for centuries: there is arranged marriage, bride kidnapping, the need to get father’s or grandfather’s permission to marry. There is “curing” very sick children by shaking an alive chicken around them. So much seems so unfair, hurtful and distressing, particularly when it comes to a mother being forced to leave her child when a man from a different village decides (on his own) that they are engaged.

Dede. source; British Council Film

Dina in Dede. Credit: British Council Film

Not a postcard picture

I have been to Svaneti several times in the last 17 years. I still know very little of the region and the local people who live there, despite having a few local friends. But as I was watching Dede, I wondered what others in the audience (who have unlikely been to Svaneti) have thought of it. I also wondered whether seeing the film would discourage or encourage tourist to travel there?

In addition to the sometimes-heavy-to-take-in traditions and superstitions, there are no beautiful shots of the grand mountains under a clear blue sky, like one would normally see on the images from Svaneti. The sky in the film is mostly grey, with heavy clouds hanging over the villages. The heavy snow makes it hard to move around. It is cold, grey, miserable. The décor of the houses and the poverty shown around them is not likely to appeal to the taste of most Western tourists.

But it is a wonderful, fascinating, strange, and still very unknown place that has been become very popular with tourists in the last few years.

Impacts of tourism

Tourists keep coming for Svaneti’s incredible nature and its uniqueness (the Svan defensive towers against the high peaks of the Greater Caucasus easily gives that fairy-tale feeling). Ushguli where the main woman character from Dede is from (so is the film 32-year-old director, Mariam Khatchvani) is on everyone’s itinerary as “the highest inhabited village in Europe”.

Tourism has changed Svaneti in many ways and the economic, environmental and social impacts are clearly visible. I mentioned a few here, and I will be writing more about social impacts. The battle between tradition and progress exists, reflected in clothing, language, family relationships, architecture. The person who built this new concrete guesthouse between the towers defended it for “being modern, so this is progress”.

 

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Credit: Davit Khergiani

 

But I am not in a position to estimate how much, if any, impact tourism has had on changing the traditions shown in Dede. They result from a combination of many other factors. But it is fair to say that most tourists don’t realise how traditional Svaneti is and what hides behind the surface. Sometimes that ignorance or lack of understanding can be hurtful towards the local people, and makes the relationship between tourists and hosts pretty fragile. As mentioned earlier, Svaneti is a fascinating, strange, and still very unknown destination that requires a lot of responsibility from tourists and tourism planners to make it a great place to visit.

 

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Credit: Paul Stephens

 

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Svaneti responsible tourism businesses – recommendations please!

I am looking for recommendations for local sustainable/responsible tourism business owners in Svaneti!

You may have heard that we are in the middle of the Responsible Travel Week (12-18 Feb) –  #RTweek18. During this week I am travelling around Svaneti in the mountains of Georgia and interviewing sustainable guesthouse/restaurant owners and guides – amazing local Svan people (or those who made Svaneti their home) who understand the principles of sustainable and responsible tourism, and who care about Svaneti’s rich natural and cultural heritage, and want to ensure that tourism will help preserve them, rather than cause a lot of damage.

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They understand the positive and negative impacts of tourism, the threats of unsustainable management of tourism (or a lack of any long-term management and vision for tourism development). They build their guesthouse houses from locally-sourced materials, employ local people, source and serve locally-grown food, they offer responsible hiking tours and do what they can to offer unique experiences and improve visitor experience without negatively impacting on the local culture or the environment etc.

I have talked to Data, Svenia, Davit, Tony, and Irma (and those of you who have been in Svaneti will know who I mean!). They are all very interesting people who Svaneti’s tourism needs in order to be sustainable, and I will do what I can to promote their businesses and services. But if anyone else knows of more people who will be worth talking to, please get in touch as soon as possible please! 

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I will report on my findings very soon. THANKS IN ADVANCE!

ივასუ ხარი 🙂

marta@transcaucasiantrail.org; on twitter: @oneplanetblog or reply to this blog please 

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Adventure, Culture & Good Food: What Foreign Tourists Expect from Georgia?

5 Hiker Svaneti_marta mils

Over the last few months, several articles have been published in worldwide press praising Georgia as an emerging tourism destination and encouraging tourists to come and visit Georgia now. Lonely Planet, National Geographic, BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Financial Times and Bloomberg to name but a few. Only last week, CNN, the Austrian Bergwelten and the Korean Herald also wrote about Georgia.

What do these articles have in common? What did the journalists think would appeal to their European, American or Korean readers to make them consider coming to Georgia? There is a number of common themes listed below, based on the analysis of several recent articles, which indicates to foreign tourists’ expectations and motivations to travel; things which are often not very well understood by many local people working in the tourism field (accommodation, food, transport etc), particularly in the rural areas of Georgia.

• Nature: the beautiful, dazzling, snow-capped Caucasus mountains, glaciers, green valleys, pristine rivers, small and remote villages against the dramatic mountain backdrop. As the Guardian put it, “superb scenery, utterly unspoilt and great for trekking.”

coruldi tourists

• Culture: old churches and monasteries, watchtowers, museums, galleries, UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Ushguli’s appeal as “the highest village in Europe” can be found in most articles), but also intangible heritage like folk songs, dances and local festivals.

• Food and wine: unique, different, authentic and very tasty.

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• Isolation, remoteness and the opportunity to disconnect (to an extent, however, because having good working Wi-Fi is also very important for tourists.

• Sense of adventure: dangerous road to Tusheti, trekking in remote areas but also off-piste or heli-skiing (off-trail, downhill skiing or snowboarding that is accessed by a helicopter).

• Hospitality of the local people, usually connected with the vast amount of local food and drink, and the opportunity to interact with them (often), despite the language barrier.

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• Ease to travel: no visas for the majority of countries; many more budget flights from Europe initiated.

• Safety to travel into and around Georgia.

• Great nightlife and plenty of things to see and do in Tbilisi (vibrant, modern, cosmopolitan, but also with a beautiful Old Town, traditional balconies, old churches etc).

• There is also a sense of urgency that comes from most reports: come right now before it is too late, before it gets spoilt (ironically, by the very same people who are being encouraged to come now!)

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Motivations of the Western Travellers

In October 2017, the CBI (the Agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands) published an interesting analysis on the trends in the European outbound tourism market that perfectly sums up the points listed above: European travelers “are looking for authentic experiences in non-traditional destinations where travelers can interact with local people (…) and “destinations in developing countries with their unique cultural and natural resources” (…). A growing number of travelers are willing to pay for unique and authentic experiences, especially if it benefits local communities. Safety, sustainability and interaction with local people are important”.

Their main motivations to venture to new destinations are hiking, trekking, unspoilt nature, wildlife, the uniqueness and the “authentic experience” – that opportunity to see, smell, taste and experience the local nature, culture and cuisine.

Meeting the expectations

In addition to the need for life-changing experiences through immersion in Georgian nature and culture, there are also more basic needs of tourists once they have arrived (and, consequently, these are the things they mostly complain about if the expectations are not met). According to several employees of the Tourist Information Centres around Georgia I regularly speak to, the foreign tourists want:

  • better quality, clean accommodation;
  • more public transport options;
  • more diverse product offer (more “things to do when it rains”);
  • better customer service;
  • more food options for vegetarians;
  • safer driving by marshrutka drivers;
  • no smoking in public;
  • and, last but not least, better Wi-Fi.

The number of curious and adventurous tourists arriving to Georgia is growing – but only meeting these needs will ensure that they leave satisfied.

I wrote this article for Georgia Today, published on 26 Jan 2018

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Overtourism in Svaneti

I have recently contributed to a great piece of work on the negative social and environmental impacts of overtourism worldwide, written by Green Global Travel: How Mass Tourism is Destroying 30+ Destinations Travelers Love. My bit about Svaneti, a remote, mountainous region of northern Georgia, is under the “Tourism in Europe” section.

“Mass tourism was arguably the most significant travel trend of 2017. Its downside, “overtourism”– the point at which the needs of tourism become unsustainable for a given destination– made headlines all across the world”, the article says.

ushguli bad

To accommodate more tourists, more extensions to family houses are built that are incompatible with the local cultural and architectural heritage.

Svaneti has been close to my heart since my first trip there in 2001, and I have witnessed the incredible change over the past 17 years. Although the region is not, understandably, struggling with overtourism as much as other European destinations such as BarcelonaDubrovnik, and Venice, the negative effect of the rapid growth of tourism in  Svaneti are undeniable (and will be growing).

I can talk about it for hours but thankfully I was limited to 200 words. So here is what I wrote for the Green Global Travel:

Situated on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountains and surrounded by 16,000-foot peaks, stunning Svaneti is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in Georgia.

The mountains, remoteness, and unique indigenous traditions make it an ideal destination for hiking, trekking, wildlife, and cultural tourism. However, negative impacts of tourism can already be seen.

When I first visited Svaneti in 2001, I didn’t see any other tourists for a week. In 2014 there were 14,160 visitors, and by 2016 there were 18,347. Because most tourists go to Mestia (2,700 inhabitants) and hike/drive east towards Ushguli (200 inhabitants) between June-September, it’s getting harder to accommodate them.

New concrete guesthouses are being built randomly, without any permission. But they’re incompatible with the local cultural and architectural heritage and ultimately spoil the picturesque landscape.

svaneti bad

New concrete guesthouses are being built randomly between the 1,000-year-old Svan towers

Farmland has been reduced to build new accommodations and ski facilities, causing problems with local food supplies. There’s a growing issue with solid waste disposal in villages and along the hiking trails. And the famous Svan hospitality is vanishing: getting invited to dine with the local family is now very rare.

Svaneti is at risk of losing its traditional charm. To avoid the crowds, head west of Mestia, where tourism has hardly been developed at all. 

 

 

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Caucasus Tourism and me in 2017 – reasons to celebrate!

The rapid growth in tourism in Georgia is NOT a reason to celebrate – but my 2017 definitely was! 

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In 2015 I made a risky but also much-needed and exciting decision to change career and work in sustainable tourism in my bellowed Caucasus region. Fast forward 18 months, and great things started happening from the first days in 2017.

2017 reassured me that I made the right decision. It also confirmed my strong belief that sustainable tourism is the only way forward for tourism development in the Caucasus (and elsewhere!) as I saw over and over again what damage unsustainable tourism can do.

It started in January with the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), the project I have been working on since Sept 2015, won the “Innovation of the Year” Award at the Adventure Travel Awards 2017. The Awards are the UK’s only awards dedicated to recognizing and rewarding the businesses and individuals who support, grow and promote the adventure travel industry through sustainable and responsible travel. We won it for “a genuine case of true trailblazing and innovation in every sense20170119_200650-1[1]

In February, we had a fantastic event at the Royal Geographical Society in London to promote the TCT and the Transcaucasian Expedition, with most of the team getting together in London – pretty unusual, considering we usually live on three different continents. Tom Allen gave a fun and inspiring talk to the 600+ audience. Here is the video of the talk.

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In March, I went to my first ITB Berlin, wearing my TCT hat. My highlights, apart from catching up with the responsible tourism crowd from all over the world, was meeting Chris Doyle from the Adventure Travel Trade Association and other “trail people”: Muna Haddad from the Jordan Trail, Alex Crevar and Thierry Joubert from Via Dinarica, and Marta Cabral from Rota Vicentina (Portugal) discussing hiking, mountains, community engagement and the potential cooperation.

Straight after I wrote “White Men in Suits and Sustainable Tourism” for PATA Sustainability blog as a reaction to all-male, mostly white panels at ITB, challenging the organisers of the sustainable tourism events to invite more diverse speakers.

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I carried on with my MSc in Responsible Tourism Management in Leeds and personally experienced what some alumni meant when they said the course is very intense but well-worth it. The course is UNWTO TedQual – certified for quality of tourism education, research and training programmes, and it celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a conference in Leeds in May. I presented the Challenges and opportunities for tourism development in the Caucasus region, and wrote about the conference for Travindy.

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And in July, I went to Armenia to build the Transcaucasian Trail. This was an absolutely fantastic experience of building new friendships, chatting, exploring the wilderness of Armenia and eating way too much Armenian lavash (bread) and cheese with a fun group of international volunteers from all over the world. I never thought that digging for eight hours a day would be so therapeutic 😊

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In September I started working on a new project in Georgia as a sustainability expert, in cooperation with the Georgian Government and the World Bank: to set up sustainable Destination Management Organisations in two regions. There are no DMOs in Georgia yet so this all very exciting!

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And in November I spoke and moderated sessions at two great events on hiking and mountain tourism organised by the German Development Cooperation GIZ in the Caucasus. First at the “Mapping and Promotion of Hiking Trails” workshop in Yerevan (with GIZ Armenia), and then at the Tourism Cooperation Forum 2017 “Sustainable Mountain Resort Development” in Gudauri (with GIZ Georgia). The engaging discussions during both events proved what I had been preaching about every time I am in Georgia and Armenia: that sustainable tourism is the only way forward for the Caucasus region.

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In December, I sealed off the year with two articles that I hope will provide food for thought for the tourism decision makers but also the practitioners on the ground: Tourism boom in Georgia – reasons to celebrate? Published by Travindy on 14 Dec, and Challenges for Sustainable Mountain Tourism in Georgia: Reflection on 2017 Issues published by Georgia Today on 18 Dec.

As I argued in the Travindy article, the rapid growth in tourism in Georgia is NOT a reason to celebrate – but my 2017 definitely was! Here is to another wonderful and productive 2018!

 

 

 

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Tony’s take on Tourism Forum 2017 – input from Svaneti

tony gudauri

Last week I wrote about a brilliant Tourism Cooperation Forum 2017 “Sustainable Mountain Resort Development” in Gudauri in northern Georgia, where practitioners from all regions discussed the challenges and opportunities for sustainable mountain tourism. Tony Hanmer who lives in the village of Etseri (Svaneti region) was one of the active participants.

Here is Tony’s account of the event, published in Georgia Today. It is great to see that it was “an eye opener” for him and that “the synergy was palpable”. http://georgiatoday.ge/news/8134/Doing-Tourism-Right%3A-Gudauri

Helpful Tony

Tony Hanmer is a friend of mine who helped me organise a great community meeting in Etseri during the community consultation I run in May-June 2016 for the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) project. He has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and runs a guesthouse in Etseri with his lovely wife Lali.

tony esteri tct

Tony was one of my “gate keepers” – someone who I had briefed extensively about the TCT project and the aim of the community consultation, and who supported me throughout the whole (sometimes daunting) process of organising the consultation in the remote mountainous region of Georgia from my desk in the UK.

He dedicated a lot of time and effort to gather the residents of all ages to participate in the consultation, which not only resulted in one of the most useful meetings we had, but also in amending our plans as to where to build the TCT and go west of Mestia, rather than east. But that’s a different story for another blog.

Pay back

Over the last 15 months, Tony has also been helping with my academic research on Svaneti and it tourism-related issues for my MSc in Responsible Tourism Management. He has a great understanding of sustainable tourism and valuable experience on the ground, so I didn’t hesitate to recommend him to GIZ Georgia as one of the participant of the Tourism Forum. GIZ carefully selected the invitees as the aim was to come up with realistic actions to tackle the key challenges in mountain tourism.

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Svaneti input

I have suggested a few people from Svaneti who who have also helped me out over the last two years, and who I thought would provide an invaluable input to the conference’s aim but will also benefit from it. David Khergiani and Irma Khergiani (who work at the Tourism Information Centre in Mestia) also travelled across the whole country to attend, and I am very grateful for their active participation and input. It was also great to reconnect after months of not seeing each other.

Visit Etseri

And if you are thinking of going to Svaneti, don’t just rush to Mestia like everyone else but stop en route in Etseri, about an hour before Mestia. You will support the local community that has a lot to offer. Tony and Lali run a warm and hospitable Hanmer Guest House and the only shop in Etseri full of home-grown and home-made products, and they can tell you where to go and what to see locally that will benefit the local people. And this is what sustainable tourism is about 😊

Marta

Tony also runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1700 members, at http://www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

 

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Tourism boom in Georgia – reasons to celebrate?

One of the main objectives of the Georgian National Tourism Development Strategy 2015-2025 is to increase the number of international arrivals to 11 million. At the current rate, achieving that is clearly doable. But is it really that desirable?

1 Mestia M Mills

I first came to Georgia on my own to hike and travel around for two weeks in 2001. I have been working on rural development and tourism in the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia) for international organisations since 2007 (on and off, but solidly for the last 2.5 years). I have also focused all my academic research for the MSc in Responsible Tourism Management on Georgia and its issues in mountain tourism development.

I have been going back and forth since 2001, and every time I am back, I get more worried that the main assets (nature and culture) are at danger. I am writing about Georgia now because it is fast becoming the new thing, the new destination for travellers from the EU, Israel and North America, but also from Iran, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And now, more than ever, a more strategic, long-term sustainable tourism development focusing on protecting Georgia’s main assets is needed.

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Seven million and growing

Almost everyone I know in Georgia is very proud of the statistics (shown below). More tourists bring more income, they tell me. But if this rapid growth is not managed responsibly by putting the needs of the local population and the protection of the natural environment first, the negative impacts will prevail over the benefits. Currently, this responsible management is not in place.

International arrivals in Georgia have been growing rapidly over recent years. In 10 years, the number has increased 10 times; in the last six years, with the highest growth rate to date registered in 2012 (56.9% in increase in internatonal arrivals). In the last six years, it grew from 2.8m of intrernational arrivales in 2011 to nearly 7m by Nov 2017, before the winter season has even started.

In 2016, 264,403 EU citizens (9.2% more than the previous year) arrived in Georgia, but that still represented only 4.2% of total arrivals. But this is only changing: between 1 January and 30 September this year, 263,600 EU citizens visited Georgia, up by nearly 25% when compared to the same period of 2016.

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More growth

According to the Global Economic Impact 2017 Report by the World Travel and Tourism Council, Georgia was amongst the fastest growing (8th in the world) travel & tourism economies in 2016 and buoyed by strong inbound international visitor spending, beating fast growing markets such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, India or China. Compared to 2015, there was an 11.2% growth in the direct contribution of travel & tourism to GDP in 2016, one of the fastest growth in the world.

Georgia is also one of the world’s fastest growing air travel markets in the world, driven by a booming tourism industry and a liberal aviation policy. In 2007, Tbilisi Airport alone greeted 615,873 passengers, meaning in the past 10 years the airport’s annual traffic has increased by 266%.

The issues with numbers

The problem – from the sustainable tourism angle – that the vast majority of all arrivals, 83.6% (5,315,451 in 2016)  come from low-spending neighbouring countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine) for business or to visit friends and relatives. The focus of Georgia’s tourism development should, therefore, be on the quality and diversity of arrivals (for example, doubling the income received from tourists and increasing the length of stay) rather than increasing the numbers.

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Desirable growth?

One of the main objectives of the National Tourism Development Strategy 2015-2025 is to increase the number of international arrivals to 11 million. At the current rate, achieving that is clearly doable. But is it really that desirable? There are only 3.7 million people in Georgia, and over a million leaves in Tbilisi. So even a smaller number of locals in rural areas (where most tourists tend to go) will have to deal with these 11 million of increasingly demanding visitors.

My experience shows that many of the local people who work in tourism in rural areas are untrained and unprepared for receiving tourists to the standard EU tourists will expect. The standard and quality of accommodation, customer service, waste management, infrastructure (particularly access roads to mountainous villages) and product offer all have to improve to attract higher-spending visitors and improve visitor experience.

The crucial challenge, however, is to ensure that these issues are managed responsibly by effective bodies who have a long-term vision and leadership for the oversight and implementation of tourism. I will be addressing these challenges in my future articles.

Marta

This article was first published in Travindy on 14 Dec: https://https://www.travindy.com/2017/12/tourism-boom-georgia-reasons-celebrate/

 

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