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

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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.

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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.

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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%.

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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).

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 Opportunities

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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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The first ever community consultation in Georgia – we did it!

adishi-mapAt the beginning of June, I spent two weeks in the mountainous region of Svaneti in northern Georgia, consulting local communities about our proposal to build the #Transcaucasian Trail. To our knowledge, the TCT project is the first tourism-related project in Georgia that puts community engagement at the heart of its operations.

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I had been preparing that trip since the beginning of the year (single-handedly but with guidance and supervision of a community development and responsible tourism specialist Lucy McCombes from Leeds Beckett University), finding relevant people in Svaneti online via my Georgian friends, various Facebook groups and other contacts I came across during my research. In Svaneti, I was joined by James and Tom from our team and Beka from the National Hiking Federation, our invaluable partner. And by Georgina, our invaluable team vehicle.

richard

mulakhi-beka-from-the-back

The main purpose of our consultation was to introduce ourselves, answer questions, discuss the benefits and impact of the TCT on the local communities and address any concerns, discuss ways to cooperate on the TCT development and get the local community blessing in each village to go ahead and start building.

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mestia

It was a fantastic trip – we got the approval and blessing for the TCT in every single village we have visited and built good foundations for the trail building that was then carried out in July and August. We met some fascinating local people and learnt a lot about their unique Svan culture, religion, architecture, history, customs and tradition  – something incredibly invaluable for an anthropological nerd like me. And it was also the best team building exercise we could ask for!

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You can read about what we did, how we did it, who we met and what we learnt in my blog here:http://transcaucasiantrail.org/en/blog/first-ever-community-engagement-deliveredne 

 

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Sustainable tourism – my shift to the Caucasus

tct-logo-for-powerpoint

I haven’t written here for a while – no excuses really. Well, maybe a small one: I have been a bit busy, building the first long-distance hiking trail across the Caucasus mountains and looking into sustainable tourism development in Georgia and Armenia. As you do…

Over the last few months my passion for sustainability has remained as strong as ever, and I am still very interested in issues related to “business and sustainability” – the vital role big and small business can plan to tackle the challenges of sustainability, and how it works towards improving its sustainable development performance  (and for the industry it operates in). I am returning to my blog now and will post regularly, but I will stop ranting about the hypocrisy of H&M posing to be sustainable while neglecting human rights in its factories and only increasing unsustainable production and consumption worldwide.

My views on unsustainable fast fashion haven’t changed, but my main interest has shifted from the fashion industry to the tourism industry.

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I have always been a keen hiker and feel complete in the mountains. The Caucasus mountains are one of the most incredible mountains in the word and the Caucasus region is one of the most biologically rich and culturally-diverse regions on Earth, recognized as one of only 35 “biodiversity hotspots” worldwide. I first went to Georgia in 2001 and fell in love straight away with its hospitable and wonderful people, and its natural beauty that is hard to describe.

mount-ushba

When I returned to Georgia again in August 2015, I saw many benefits that the development of tourism has brought to the local people in the mountains. I have also  noticed the negative impact. But what made me shift my focus, energy and free time was the huge opportunity I saw in tourism development in the Caucasus region, provided it is done responsibly. With a small group of hikers and sustainable tourism practitioners, we have embarked on delivering a product – a hiking trail – for the benefit of people and the environment, now and for future generations.

The mission of the TransCaucasian Trail (TCT) we are building is to improve access to the region’s diverse cultural and natural heritage and encourage its preservation, benefiting local communities and trail users through the development of sustainable tourism. And I will do everything I can to make it happen, and will be reporting promptly here in this blog.

 

Check out: TCT website

Facebook:  TCT Facebooktct-logo-for-powerpoint

Twitter: @theTCTtrail

 

 

 

 

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“OMG you can freeze eggs” – and other things we didn’t know

I have recently attended a fun and informative “Love Food Hate Waste” training, organised for Westminster Council’s Recycling Champions (a group of enthusiastic volunteers who help the Council promote recycling). We give talks and presentations to local residents, we run educational sessions for children, we run recycling and upcyling-related workshops, so we thought we “knew it all” about waste.

Well…

The training was structured into various tasks related to freezing, wasting and storing food – we discussed numerous questions in small groups and then compared them with the wider group. It was interesting to see how much we thought we knew, and how much we actually did. Here are a few things that surprised us:

Freezing:

  • We were all surprised that we can freeze eggs! – best to beat them until the yolk and egg white is just about blended, and then put them in an airtight container to freeze. Egg white and yolk can also be frozen separately.
  • We can freeze bananas (with no skin), tomatoes (blended)and cheese (but not soft cheese) – best to grate it and then freeze it.

It looks like we can freeze pretty much almost all foods if stored properly – have a look here on what freeze or not to freeze.

Food waste: we hear a lot of about tons of food being wasted but these numbers made us particularly concerned as they refer to how much we throw away DAILY in the UK: 5.8m potatoes, 1.5m sausages, 1.4m bananas and 1.1m eggs, and 24m slices of bread! We throw away about 5kg of food per person per week. Also, we have learnt that out of 70,000 tonnes of breakfast cereal is thrown away each year in the UK, over 27,000 tonnes (39%) is thrown away because too much has been served, which also adds to the amount of wasted milk.

Storing food: it turned out that some of us keep rice in the fridge for over three days (wrong! old rice can cause food poisoning and should be eaten within 24 hours of cooking) and keep leftovers in the fridge for a week (wrong again: two days, in a container with a lid or covered with cling film). All of us wrongly thought that eggs should not be stored in the fridge.

I also learnt that most fruit and veg will stay fresher for longer if kept in the bag they came in – I have always believed (for no particular reason) the bag makes them go rotten. And apples and broccoli will stay fresher for longer if kept in the fridge, but bread will stale six times faster.

Do you know what the optimum temperature for the fridge is? And, more importantly, do you know what the actual temperature of your fridge is? Apparently, most fridges are about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than supposed to, which makes food go off quicker (for example, milk by two days).

More training sessions to come: We all agreed that this was one of the most useful, practical and fun training we have recently attended. We are now ready to spread the knowledge to minimise food waste, and will be running free workshops in libraries and community centres across Westminster – more details to follow here and on twitter @oneplanetblog

It is well-worth having a look at the Love Food Hate Waste website for more fascinating facts and useful tips. Even if we think we know it all. Because, most likely, we don’t.

Twitter: #LFHW

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