My short welcome speech for EuroEco18

5th European Ecotourism Conference was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, 10-12 September. The event provided a platform for a range of stakeholders throughout the continent and beyond – to present their research results and development activities on ecotourism and sustainable tourism as well as to start discussions on the work of the European Ecotourism Network. I wrote more about the conference topics and workshops here.

42857443_305732753560853_6854333273984729088_n[1]Keynote speakers and moderators at EuroEco18 from (left to right): Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Japan, Poland, Montenegro, UK, Portugal and Romania.

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I moderated several sessions during the first two days. My first session, “Ecotourism as a Tool for Community Development in Destinations”, focused on the role of ecotourism as an instrument for poverty reduction as well as on the role Protected Areas play in Economic Development. Here is a short speech I made to introduce this session:

Good morning. Thank you all for coming to this first sessions of EuroEco18 that will focus on Ecotourism as a Tool for Community Development in Destinations.

My name is Marta Mills and I have the pleasure to moderate this session together with Nata from the Georgian Ecotourism Association. I first came to Georgia 17 years ago for a month as a tourist, and as it was pretty unusual to visit Georgia back then, I was welcomed like a queen by the local people wherever I went. I have immediately fallen in love with the amazing landscapes, food and wine but most of all with the incredible Georgian hospitality that I have experienced even in the poorest areas of the country. Since then I have been back and forth 16 times, closely observing the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the rapidly developing tourism.

Even back then in August 2001, the local people wanted more tourists because they saw tourism as a way to help reduce poverty, particularly in the most remote regions such as Svaneti. I don’t know for sure, but I think it is safe to assume that the Svans I talked to in 2001 saw tourism and ecotourism as an additional source of income, not the main way to earn a living. But this is what has happened to a significant number of them. In many destinations across Georgia, ecotourism has proven to be an effective tool for community development and poverty reduction.

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As the impacts of tourism are both positive and negative, ecotourism represents a great challenge for making destinations better place to live, better place to visit and for developing the local economy at community level. Building environmental and cultural awareness and respect; minimizing negative physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts of tourism, and generate financial benefits for the local community and businesses are not easy, and different destinations use different approaches, methods and indicators to develop, manage and monitor ecotourism.

During this session, we will listen to speakers from Poland, Romania, Finland, Georgia, Italy, Turkey and others who will share case studies and best practice examples from their destinations. We will also look at the relationships between tourism and Protected Areas, and their role in social and economic development in Georgia and other places. We all know how important it is to gather and disseminate transnational experiences and learn from each other to ensure that tourism development is sustainable. So over to you now. We wish you a very informative and enjoyable session. 

Didi Madloba.

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Interview for the Sustainability Leaders project on sustainable tourism in the Caucasus

This week I am featured in a great Sustainability Leaders Project, interviewed as the first sustainable tourism expert on the Caucasus region. The project is an invaluable knowledge hub for tourism professionals interested in the latest trends, strategies and success stories in sustainable tourism. It offers more than 150 interviews with tourism professionals in over 30 countries worldwide, where professionals tell their stories and share their thoughts on how they approach sustainability.

I talked about my experience in making tourism more sustainable in the Caucasus region, particularly in Georgia. Here are some of the questions I was asked:

  • As an expert in mountain tourism, which are the main challenges in developing and managing e.g. alpine destinations sustainably?
  • Which are the main topics or concerns linked to tourism sustainability at the moment in the Caucasus region, especially Georgia and Armenia?
  • How important is a destination’s sustainability performance nowadays for its competitiveness?
  • Together with the World Bank you are currently setting up sustainable destination management organizations in Georgia, as well as helping establish strategies for regional and national tourism marketing in the country. Can you tell us more about this work, especially how you integrate destination marketing with management?
  • Having experienced so many places, what made you fall in love with this specific region (Caucasus)?

I may have been quite harsh in this interview on tourism decision makers and other stakeholders in Georgia, challenging them for the lack of interest in the impact of climate change, not enough care about environmental protection, lack of leadership in developing tourism in a sustainable way.

However, I also pointed out than there are many positive developments. And there are enough caring and ethically-motivated people who want to preserve the region’s rich and unspoiled natural and cultural heritage.

And I stress one more time like I did in the interview: It is an absolutely fascinating place on Earth that is worth exploring, and if anyone is prepared to step off the beaten track a bit, they can still have the experience of the incredible hospitality, bizarre unforgettable adventures and the most pristine nature I had back in 2001.

I hope you enjoy the interview and learn more about tourism in the Caucasus region.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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