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! 


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.


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.

Marta M[2]

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.

Marta 2 Leeds cropped[1]

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 😊




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!


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.



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.

3 laughter

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 😊


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.

marta svaneti

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.

5 Hiker Svaneti_marta mils

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.


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.


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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Sustainable mountain tourism development in Georgia: insights from Tourism Forum 2017

4 group

The Tourism Cooperation Forum 2017 “Sustainable Mountain Resort Development” was organised by GIZ Georgia (the German development agency) last month in Gudauri mountain resort in northern Georgia. I was one of the speakers and helped with moderating various conference sessions.

The two-day event was attended by about 75 carefully-selected representatives from the Georgian tourism industry private sector (accommodation, transport, guiding, food and adventure activities providers), national and local government and tourism agencies, and international donors.

2 beka

The aim of the event was to get a better understanding of the current challenges and opportunities from a range of practitioners on the ground, and come up with a set of practical recommendations. The key was to ensure that all attendees actively participated in the discussions, plenary sessions and group workshops to get the most realistic outcome.

3 laughter

Setting the scene

To set the scene and encourage the active participation for practical workshops, tourism professionals first presented case studies and good practice examples from various regions of Georgia and from other world mountainous destinations with similar context. GIZ’s approach to invite only experienced practitioners, to focus on practical case studies and lessons learnt, to let tourism experts moderate each session and to hire professional facilitators has paid off – the participation and engagement of the attendees was very high, over 90%.

5 tony

Key challenges for mountain tourism in Georgia

The key challenges that are likely to hinder sustainable tourism development in the mountains of Georgia include the challenges similar to other emerging destinations elsewhere (not listed in any order of importance):

  1. Lack of cooperation and communication between private and public sector on planning and implementation of tourism in the regions.
  2. Ad-hoc, unplanned tourism development with no vision and long-term strategy. No DMO to oversee the strategic development.
  3. Lack of professional hospitality, management and language skills amongst the local population.
  4. Seasonality and short stay of tourists.
  5. Poor quality of products and services.
  6. Poor and non-diversified product offer.
  7. Lack of strategic and coordinated marketing.
  8. Poor trail management (marking, maintenance; the inability to utilise the existing network of trails for tourism development).
  9. Poor waste management – no waste collections in villages; rubbish is thrown into rivers.
  10. Poor infrastructure (particularly access roads to mountainous villages).

 1 main photo


But it is not all doom and gloom. The SWOT analysis conducted jointly by the attendees showed that the main strength are Georgia’s rich and diverse natural resources and culture as well as the potential for adventure tourism development in still unspoilt, “authentic” environment. Protecting and preserving that heritage, and diversifying the experiences offered are the key opportunities for successful and sustainable growth in mountain tourism.

The transnational Transcaucasian Trail already provides greater market access to the more remote places and can be better utilised for regional (Caucasus region) tourism development and international marketing.

2 strenghts

DMOs for efficient management

The need to establish Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) for an efficient sustainable tourism management (and for addressing and making any progress on the key environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues) was repeatedly discussed throughout the event.

I am currently working on setting up two DMOs in Georgia and my experience also shows that regional DMOs – provided the roles and responsibilities of individual members of the DMO to oversight and implement tourism are clearly defined, and that it is appropriately funded – would provide the much-needed leadership and vision for long-term sustainable tourism development.

Not “yet another boring conference”

The Forum was a well-organised and well-thought through event that encouraged almost 100% engagement from the attendees. The format of the event was crucial in ensuring that involvement. The mood and morale afterwards were high – most people summarised the event openly with words such as “hopeful”, “optimistic”, “encouraged”, “positive”.

Davit Khergiani who works in the Tourism Information Centre in the Svaneti region, said: “I liked the very high standard of the event and that from the first minutes to the end we were very focused on what we were doing. It was practically-oriented on useful and very current issues for us working in mountain tourism development”.

The expectations are high, which could be a threat, but it also is a tremendous opportunity. There is a willingness to cooperate and improve the status quo. It is now up to the government, the local authorities and the donors to take the lead and ensure the expectations are managed and the recommendations are followed.

Marta Mills


This article has originally been posted on Travindy: https://www.travindy.com/2017/12/sustainable-mountain-tourism-development-georgia-insights-tourism-forum-2017/

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Transcaucasian Trail: “Innovation of the Year” winner!

The Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) project I have been closely involved with since its launch in Nov 2015, has 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.

team with the award


The project’s responsible tourism focus has been recognized by the panel of independent judges, who argued that the TCT “is a genuine case of true trailblazing and innovation in every sense. Driven by a group of idealistic outdoor and travel enthusiasts, this will open up previously unreachable places, and help change the lives of the communities involved for the better.”

So what did we do to win the prize?

I wrote about it for travindy.com and you can read it here. Enjoy and get inspired 🙂


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How to build a sustainable tourism brand – insights from PATA conference in Bangladesh


The Pacific Asia Tourism Association (PATA) New Tourism Frontiers Forum 2016 was held at the end of November in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, under the theme “Designing a sustainable tourism brand”. The conference gathered practitioners in destination and sustainable tourism management for inspiring and insightful discussions on some of the major issues in marketing and managing tourism growth in unexplored destinations. I participated as one of the conference 21 speakers, presenting to delegates from over 90 national and international organisations (governments, NGOs, universities, tour operators, travel associations, community organisations, hotels and the media).

NTFF 2016 was hosted by the Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB) that is keen to develop and brand Cox’s Bazar as one of the major international tourism destination, in a responsible way. The forum tackled a range of topics: developing heritage tourism, developing tourism around a trail concept, protecting marine tourism, brand building and marketing for emerging destinations.



Why Cox’s Bazar?

Cox’s Bazar – the “unexplored destination” – located along the Bay of Bengal, is a town and a district famous for its unbroken 120 km-long sandy beach, the longest beach in the world. However, during the three-day stay we have learnt that there is much more to it than its natural beauty. The rich cultural heritage and diverse local communities with their own traditions, religions and customs are another asset that can potentially attract international visitors.

We have visited a few Buddhist temples and monasteries, including the Ramu Temple and its 100-feet-long golden statue of the Sleeping Buddha. We had the opportunity to meet the welcoming Barua community – the ancient ethnic minority known as the Burua-Buddhist. We have also mingled with local fishermen and admired their distinctive Sampan boats.



Photo by Rob Holmes @glpfilms

How not to spoil it all – key recommendations

So how can the BTB build upon these assets and turn Cox’s Bazar into a popular international destination? And, most importantly, how can they do it responsibly and “not spoil” its the pristine and undeveloped beaches, benefitting the local communities at the same time? Here are some key learnings and recommendations taken from the conference (and it is worth mentioning that although some of them sound obvious and trivial, surprisingly often they are being neglected):

  1. Community engagement is key to build on a destination’s cultural heritage – and not as a one-off, box-ticking activity, but as a managed, long-term, continuous process from the very beginning throughout all stages of the engagement. The communities need to agree what they are comfortable with sharing, showing and selling, and understand what the level of their participation in tourism development is (and how they can benefit). To quote one of the speakers Peter Richards: “a shift is needed from looking at people as products to people as partners to build their confidence and capacity”.
  2. Legally enforceable policy and urban planning as well as a strong RT development strategy need to be in place – their lack result in unsustainable destinations. This involves a close cooperation between many stakeholders (government, developers, tour operators and the local community) to agree on the long-term vision for the destination and the ways to mitigate the potential negative impacts of tourism.
  3. Dispersion of travel is crucial to avoid high concentration of visitors in one place. That needs to be considered in both planning and marketing.
  4. Selling a destination doesn’t stop with selling a tour to a customer (tourist) – they will arrive and immediately share it on social media. And nothing sells better than “experience” – so use the available resources to create products for tourists that will allow them to experience your destination and share the best from what it offers. Remember to ask your visitors to add location and tag people when posting on social media.
  5. Development of heritage trails: there are many types of trails that can be created in a destination (contrary to some beliefs that trails can only be built in the mountains). The Cox’s Bazar area has a unique combination of the longest beach and the highest hills in Bangladesh in one place, so a “beach to hills” trail provide an attractive alternative to tourists (not to mention the number of Buddhist temples or the variety of the local cuisine).
  6. Marketing/branding: to compete with well-established destinations, emerging ones need to build their brand around a clear and differentiated positioning. Use the assets that are unique to your destination. And, like in any communication with customers when we want to influence behaviour, our marketing needs to show “what’s in it for them” – how can they benefit in a tangible way? (and maybe after they will think of protecting the planet…).

And as one of the key speakers Marjorie van Strien said in her presentation: “ The memories I will take from here are the memories I take from interactions with the local people”. Combining that with the vast, never-ending unspoilt stretch of sand, Cox’s Bazar already has everything needed to become “a brand”. It is now up to its decision makers to take the Forum’s recommendations seriously and apply them in practice.




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