The coronavirus pandemic has already significantly affected the tourism industry in Georgia and the country’s economy that heavily relies on tourism. This is a good time to reflect on the most desirable tourism going forward, and all the opportunities this may bring
In my first post in this series, I summarised the rapid growth of tourism in Georgia in the last decade. 2020 was supposed to be the best year ever. For many, ‘the best’ simply meant most profitable; however – and this is something often forgotten in Georgia – more and more tourists also mean many negative social and environmental impacts. Growth in visitor numbers should not be perceived or defined as success, particularly in emerging destinations where local communities and small businesses are often not the ones who benefit most.
I’d argue that the most positive impact of the unexpected reduction in international arrivals caused by COVID-19 is an opportunity to change the mindset focussed so heavily on growth, and shift towards more responsible, more meaningful, more innovative and less damaging tourism in Georgia. To put it simply: to transform and regenerate it.
‘The task of rebuilding tourism gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebalance it’ said Jeremy Sampson, the CEO of a sustainable tourism NGO the Travel Foundation. This is the time to do it in Georgia too, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do it well.
Rebalance, rethink, repurpose
Post COVID-19, the Georgian tourism industry will have to change. First of all, it will be crucial to resist the temptation to ‘return to normal’ because the ‘normal’ was already quite damaging for some local communities and for the natural environment. To quote the authors of the excellent academic assessment of COVID-19 published this week in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism: ‘With the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgent need not to return to business-as-usual when the crisis over (…)’. In this sense, the coronavirus – as awful, damaging and scary as it has been – can be seen as an opportunity to redefine tourism in Georgia, its long-term goals, purpose and key beneficiaries.
With no tourists and no pressing needs to look after them now, both private and public sector stakeholders have an opportunity to stop, reflect on and rethink their current practices. This is the time for the government and other influential decision makers to stop the race to constantly increasing the numbers of visitors, to build more casinos and more fancy hotels, and to construct more and more tarmac roads going up the mountain passes. Anyone who has been to Georgia more than once, even in a space of a year, will understand what I mean. I will write more on this in the article on COVID-19 and Protected Areas.
Transforming tourism: opportunities
I am not aiming to provide the answers for a quick and miraculous recovery as I don’t have them. But based on the wide range of current online discussions, analyses, reports, surveys, thought-pieces as well as case studies from various destinations on the sustainable tourism responses to COVID-19, I have listed several opportunities that are particularly relevant to Georgian tourism at the moment.
In the interest of keeping this article concise, I am resisting the temptation to elaborate on each of these opportunities, but I will do so in future articles in the series. I will not mention the opportunities for the business sector here either. Any comments and suggestions are most welcome.
Opportunity to diversify
There is an opportunity for the Georgian decision makers to reassess whether it is possible NOT to rely so much on mass tourism, to diversify and shift the focus and investments on other sectors. For the country that relies so heavily on international tourism, the significant loss in international tourism revenues (from US$3.3bn in 2019 to US$1.2bn – US$2.8bn compared to 2019) is bound to affect the economy even harder. But even within the tourism sector, this is an opportunity to focus less on mass and MICE tourism and invest more in supporting rural, agro and ecotourism.
Opportunity from ecotourism
It is fair to assume that ecotourism will play a more prominent role in Georgia post COVID-19. International travellers will now be more careful in choosing destinations based on various criteria related to safety, hygiene, remoteness, and quality of the travel experience. They are likely to opt for more secluded destinations, avoiding the crowds, staying longer in one place and immersing in the local culture, surrounded by unspoilt nature, eating locally-sourced, authentic food.
Ecotourism offers such transformative experiences – mass tourism doesn’t. Constantly moving around from one overcrowded hotspot to another on a packed coach, or the conveyer belt-like tours of big vineries that were very popular with mass tourists in Georgia, will not be as attractive anymore.
Opportunity to improve standards
This is all related with an opportunity to improve standards: sustainability, hygiene, quality and standards of service. This means that some businesses will not survive but it also means that the long-overdue improvement in standards will attract higher-spending tourists. With its stunning nature, rich culture and organic food, Georgia is already well-placed to attract the more resilient and mobile high-end tourists.
Opportunity for domestic tourism
The recent McKinsey global survey on consumer behaviour amid COVID-19 showed that consumers across countries remain hesitant to return to international travel and large public gatherings once the effects of COVID-19 decrease. The need for the Georgian Tourism Administration to shift its attention on developing domestic tourism is an opportunity to encourage Georgians to stay within its borders and support the local tourism businesses, and to get to know their beautiful country. Over the last 20 years I have met so many Georgians who have never been to Svaneti, Tusheti, Lagodekhi, the Black Sea Coast and many other regions popular with international tourists. This crisis might provide them with a chance to discover or rediscover Georgia, and to build a deeper connection with nature.
Opportunity for better destination management
According to a recent survey from the Adventure Travel Trade Association,currently ‘tourism boards are primarily supporting the local industry through open communication, and by providing tools, resources and information to help members weather the crisis’. This is an opportunity for the newly-created DMOs in Georgia to step up their efforts in order to do so. However, perhaps in a few weeks time, they will have an opportunity to show leadership and expand their roles from ‘promoting communities to building communities’ (to quote Greg Oates, one of the leading experts in destination management): to develop destinations in alignment with the best interests of the community.
I can imagine that this suggestion may raise a few eyebrows – I am fully aware of the limited resources and other challenges that the DMOs face. But this article is about the opportunities to regenerate tourism, so why not aim high?
Opportunity to build trust with local communities
Now is the time to listen and communicate better with the local industry stakeholders and the community members. This will build much-needed trust that will bear fruit when tourists return to each destination. This is particularly important, because lack of cooperation and communication between private and public sector on planning and implementation of tourism in the regions as well as lack of trust are one of the key challenges in tourism development in the Caucasus . To quote Jeremy Sampson again: ‘Communities belong at the center of tourism. Now, we can make a choice to put them at the heart of recovery planning.’
And this brings me to not only an opportunity but an urgent necessity that any recovery efforts and any transformation will not be possible without:
Opportunity to cooperate and learn from each other
As the UNWTO said in its COVID-19 impact assessment, tourism is resilient but ‘this crisis is like no other and requires strong and coordinated action ‘. Any long-term plan for recovery and for building a more resilient, more sustainable tourism industry in Georgia will require a coordinated approach and cooperation with a wide range of stakeholders: government, business, academics, SMEs, communities. Not only within Georgia, but also from stakeholders outside.
The opportunity to transform and regenerate the Georgian tourism based on that wide cooperation is now, and cannot be wasted.
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