Local pride, authenticity and connection – social benefits of trails

What I find most fascinating about trails and cultural routes is their power to connect and foster social interactions and shared responsibility, creating social benefits for both tourists and the local people.

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Discussing socio-cultural benefits of trails at ITB Berlin: Alex Crevar, me, Vladan Kreckovic and Thierry Joubert

Scenic Roads and Trails’ were the theme of the three-day series of events and presentations on the Adventure stage at ITB Berlin last week. It was simply music to my ears as I love trails for their power to connect people, places, cultures and nature.  It is also a subject close to my heart as co-creating the Transcaucasian Trail, a new long-distance hiking path, has brought me into sustainable tourism. At ITB, together with the Via Dinarica trail experts from the Western Balkans we discussed the value of long-distance trails and cultural routes for the development of sustainable tourism, and their positive social impacts on tourists and the local communities.

Long-distance trails provide excellent opportunities to experience nature, history and culture. They help preserve the local heritage, give coherence to cultural themes and develop cultural understanding between the hosts and the guests. During the panel I was asked why creating local pride through trail development is important, and does that help to bring the locals on board and bring authenticity to the route?

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‘What fascinates me most about trails is their power to connect: people, destinations, attractions, cultures and nature’

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Trails and the local pride

Trails and cultural routes give the opportunity to bring communities together, to nurture community pride, instil a sense of belonging and deepen the awareness and knowledge of the local history and the resources they have. Creating or strengthening the community pride is one of the key social benefits of tourism, and tourism is not sustainable without positive social impacts.

These routes also bring communities and tourists together. They ‘stimulate cultural exchanges that instil local pride, enrich the cultural identity and heritage of destinations and foster closer ties between visitors and host communities’ (UNWTO ‘Global Report on Cultural Routes and Itineraries’, 2015). The report also calls such routes ‘a window of opportunities’ thanks to their economic and social impacts.

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Local and international volunteers from seven countries brought together to build the Transcaucasian Trail, July 2017

Trails and authenticity

If the local people are proud of their natural and cultural heritage and if they understand the value this can have for visitors, they will be willing to share it and hence make it into a more authentic, more immersive and more educational experience. They will also be willing to share it with trails planners and trails developers, advise them on best routes and hidden gems along the route, which again makes the trail much more authentic.

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Community consultation for the Transcaucasian Trail. Mulakhi in Svaneti, Georgia. June 2016

We have had several situations during scouting and planning the Transcaucasian Trail when local people advised us to take a different route that would make the trail more interesting, safer and more accessible, that would help discover those hidden gems or simply help avoid conflict amongst communities. This not only has generated more unique experiences for trail users but also encouraged and enabled the locals to participate in tourism planning process, enhancing their self-esteem and self-belief, improving cooperation and communication as well as fostering shared responsibility.

Interestingly, The Columbia Valley Greenways Trail Alliance (Canada) mentions that ‘improved self-image and social relationships, reduced crime rates, and a lifestyle encouraging youth to find their entertainment in healthy, wholesome pursuits, are all found to be byproducts of local trail systems’. This post also has a good summary of various benefits of trails.

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Community consultation for the Transcaucasian Trail. Adishi in Svaneti, Georgia. May 2016

 

Trails: the power to connect

Trails provide a themed and interpreted journey through landscapes, creating links between sites, attractions, tourism businesses and people by providing information and storytelling along the way (MacLeod, 2016). What fascinates me most in trails is that power to connect: communities within one village or region; communities in various regions; communities and trail users; trail users with other trail users; trails users and nature, culture and other attractions; attractions with other attractions; trail users with the natural and cultural heritage; communities with the natural and cultural heritage…

This develops the cultural identity of destinations and enriches interactions between tourists and hosts, providing all the benefits written above.

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Trails and local story

And going back to the issue of participation of the locals in trail creation and, consequently, in tourism development in their destination. The community participation is crucial for the interpretation of the trail: how the information will be displayed and communicated to the visitors, what kind of story it will tell and how, what kind of experience it will provide.

As mentioned earlier, trails and cultural routes provide excellent opportunities for users to experience the natural and cultural heritage of the destinations along the route – both separate destinations (villages, regions) or one destination for the whole trail (the Caucasus region, the Western Balkans etc). Identification of these opportunities during trail planning – in close cooperation with the local communities – ensures that the interpretive signage at various strategic locations and points of interest will help tell a story to trail users and provide a deeper experience for those interested in learning more about the region. Sharing the local story is another way to deepen the sense of pride of the community’s own history and cultural heritage.

Developing a story around and behind the trail – why is it special, what makes it unique that will make people come and use it – is another fascinating subject we touched on during the ITB panel. I will write about it another time.

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The Adventure stage, Responsible Travel Hall, ITB Berlin 6-8 March 2019

 

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my interview for the Sustainability Leaders Project

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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.

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?

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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.”

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• 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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