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Upper Svaneti, a mountainous region of Georgia located in the north-west of the country and surrounded by the spectacular peaks of Greater Caucasus mountain range, is a good example of tourist potential deriving from the interaction between natural and cultural features. In this paper we will first outline an introductory framework of tourism in Georgia. Then we will analyse the case study of Upper Svaneti, which is nowadays undergoing a phase of early tourist development, thanks to a combination of factors: the pathway of Georgia towards a greater political and economic stability; an increased accessibility of the area thanks to the improvement of the road network and the establishment of air connections with Tbilisi; an intensive process of rehabilitation of the human settlements, combined with the creation of tourist facilities; a growing image following the inclusion, in 1996, of its famous medieval stone towers in the UNESCO World Heritage, which make the mountain landscape of Upper Svaneti extraordinarily interesting from the cultural, architectural, ethnographical - and therefore tourist - points of view.
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University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti-Pescara, Department of Economics,
Viale Pindaro 42, 65127, Pescara, Italy, mariannacappucci@libero.it
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Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Department of Human Geography,
Chavchavadze Avenue 14, 0179, Tbilisi, Georgia, npavliashvili11@gmail.com
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University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti-Pescara, Department of Economics,
Viale Pindaro 42, 65127, Pescara, Italy, lucazarrilli@iol.it
Abstract: Upper Svaneti, a mountainous region of Georgia located in the north-west
of the country and surrounded by the spectacular peaks of Greater Caucasus
mountain range, is a good example of tourist potential deriving from the interaction
between natural and cultural features. In this paper we will first outline an
introductory framework of tourism in Georgia. Then we will analyse the case study of
Upper Svaneti, which is nowadays undergoing a phase of early tourist development,
thanks to a combination of factors: the pathway of Georgia towards a greater political
and economic stability; an increased accessibility of the area thanks to the
improvement of the road network and the establishment of air connections with
Tbilisi; an intensive process of rehabilitation of the human settlements, combined
with the creation of tourist facilities; a growing image following the inclusion, in
1996, of its famous medieval stone towers in the UNESCO World Heritage, which
make the mountain landscape of Upper Svaneti extraordinarily interesting from the
cultural, architectural, ethnographical - and therefore tourist - points of view.
Key words: Georgia, Upper Svaneti, mountain tourism, heritage, landscape
* * * * * *
INTRODUCTION
Globalization is characterised, among other things, by the simultaneity and the
multiplicity of experiences, identities, models in what has been called the "global village"
(McLuhan, 1964). At the same time, globalization has accelerated the transition from
closed to open systems, from fixity to mobility, from isolation to interdependence. Hence
comes the desire of the contemporary individual - that someone would define post-
modern (Minca, 1996) - to belong to a socio-cultural system that is wider than local or
national ones, and therefore to broaden his horizons through the experience of different
* Corresponding author
Marianna CAPPUCCI,
Nino PAVLIASHVILI, Luca ZARRILLI
66
realities, cultures and territories: in one word, with the "other". Such an experience
becomes possible primarily through the practice of tourism.
One of the main features of contemporary tourism is the increasing segmentation
of the demand, in terms of income, age, consumptions, habits, origin of the flows,
educational levels, motivations, attitudes. Analysts agree, moreover, that the world
demand for tourism will further diversify in the medium and long terms (Wilson, 2011).
Supply, therefore, is moving towards an increasing customization: on the one hand, new
types of tourism arise and develop; on the other hand, new destinations emerge for the
traditional types. All of this represents an alternative to mass tourism. Consequently, if
the related targets may be considered as small market niches from a local viewpoint, at
the continental or global scale they represent a potential market which is wide enough to
generate profitability for emerging destinations, if visibility, image, accessibility,
attractiveness and usability are insured (Viken & Granås, 2014).
The causes can be technological (increased accessibility of a growing number of
places due to the development of transport networks, especially the low-cost flights; wider
and real time information, thanks to the Internet), motivational (search for alternative
destinations; desire to meet the "other", as long as perceived as genuine; aspiration to
expand one’s own sphere of action to new, unusual or just trendy experiences), but also
geopolitical (e.g., the collapse of Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe and the
subsequent opening of the borders – and of the markets - to inbound and outbound
tourism). Therefore a growing number of destinations, that just a few years ago were left
out of the tourism market because lacking of major tourist attractions (sea, lake, snow,
spa, monuments), or peripheral to mainstream tourist routes, or difficult to access due to
geopolitical reasons, are now experiencing a growing reputation and a promising
development through a combination of effective promotion and increased accessibility.
Under this respect, the most substantial evolution of the last decades (especially
since the late nineties) has been the fast growing international tourism headed for the
Eastern European countries and the post-Soviet space, especially for the traditional types
of tourism (beach, mountain, lake, thermal, cultural, rural etc.), but also, to a certain
extent, for the innovative ones (heritage, memory, adventure, medical, dark etc.). The
main destinations of these emerging flows are the historical towns of Eastern Europe1
(such as Prague, Budapest, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Gdansk, Baltic capital cities) and the
seaside resorts of Adriatic Sea (Slovenia, Croatia2), followed by the Black Sea (Romania,
Bulgaria, Ukraine). As far as mountain tourism, ecotourism and rural tourism are
concerned, the Slovenian section of the Alps (Kranjska Gora), the Tatra Mountains
(between Slovakia and Poland) and the Carpathians3 (Romania, Ukraine) are showing an
interesting evolution.
Further east, some countries of the Southern Caucasus (Armenia4 and Georgia) and
Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) are entering the international tourism markets,
thanks to a combination of natural and cultural tourist resources that can successfully
address traditional market segments (such as the cultural, mountain, rural ones), as well
as more innovative segments like adventure and heritage tourism. Heritage tourism5 can
be defined as an immersion in the natural and cultural history of a place, made
perceptible to human senses by a specific mix of tangible and intangible resources that
represent the basic elements upon which values, memories and identities are built. Under
1 See, at this regard, Czepczyński, 2008.
2 For Croatia, see Albolino, 2014.
3 For Romanian Carpathians, see Bădulescu and Bâc, 2009; Gaceu et al, 2012; Gozner and Zarrilli, 2012; Ilieş et al, 2014; Gozner, 2010.
4 For Armenia, see Cappucci and Zarrilli, 2008.
5 On this topic, see Timothy and Boyd, 2007; Marcos Arévalo and Ledesma, 2010.
New Trends in Mountain and Heritage Tourism:
the Case of Upper Svaneti in the Context of Georgian Tourist Sector
67
this respect, a central role is played by the "cultural landscape"6, which can be regarded as
the specific product of the interactions between natural features (climate, vegetation,
orography etc.) and human activities (agricultural structures, human settlements, social
organizations etc.). Such an interaction gives the territory its unique character, its
individuality (Wallach, 2005; Smith, 2006; Zarrilli, 2007; Roca, Claval, & Agnew, 2011).
Cultural landscape, therefore, is a key resource for heritage tourism, as defined above.
A very good example of tourist potential deriving from the aforementioned
interaction is represented by Upper Svaneti (Georgia). In the following chapters we will
outline an introductory framework of tourism in Georgia, which is experiencing a quick
growth phase. Then we will analyse the case study of Upper Svaneti, which is a
mountainous region of Georgia located in the north-west of the country on the border
with the Russian Federation, surrounded by the spectacular peaks, ranging from 3,000 to
5,000 meters, of the southern side of the Greater Caucasus mountain range. Upper
Svaneti is nowadays undergoing a phase of early tourist development, thanks to a
combination of factors which will be discussed further, one of which is represented by its
cultural landscape, which is unique and extraordinarily interesting from the naturalistic,
architectural, ethnographical - and therefore tourist - points of view (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The settlement of Ushguli, about 2,100 m.a.s.l.
(Source: Luca Zarrilli, 2009)
Georgia as a tourist destination
Located in the Southern Caucasus, along the Black Sea coast, Georgia has a huge
tourist potential: about 100 mountains (Abastumani, Bakuriani, Bakhmaro, etc.), seaside
(Kobuleti, Ureki, Batumi, etc.), balneotherapeutic and mud health resorts (Borjomi,
Sairme, Likani, Akhtala, etc.). Furhermore, more than 12.000 historic-architectural
monuments are counted (Pavliashvili, 2003:171) – some of which included in UNESCO
World Heritage Sites list (Upper Svaneti, Bagrati Cathedral, Gelati Monastery,
6 On this topic, see Mitchell et al., 2009.
Marianna CAPPUCCI,
Nino PAVLIASHVILI, Luca ZARRILLI
68
Mtskheta) – and several nature sanctuaries. All of these are concentrated within a small
territory, occupied by hospitable and distinctive people (Prikhodko, 2014). There are 103
resorts and 182 so called “resort places”, which means that in such places there are
enough natural factors for treatment and organisation of resort, but for the moment they
do not have any tourist infrastructure7.
Georgia is also distinguished for its share of pristine natural environment, which
represents 14% of the territory. Pristine natural landscape can be found both in protected
and high mountain areas (Elizbarashvili and Kupatadze, 2011:3). The country also
provides unique opportunities for birdwatchers. Based on the information of Galvez
(2005:14), it is possible to watch more than 200 species in a two-week period. Georgia, as
part of the Caucasus, is one of three “Endemic Bird Areas” of Europe.
In addition to its natural features, the country boasts an age-old human history that
competes with, or even surpasses, most European countries (Metreveli and Timothy
2010:139). Georgia was part of several ancient civilizations including the Hittite, Persian,
Greek, Roman and the Byzantine empires. In ancient geography, Colchis was an ancient
kingdom in Western Georgia. According to Greek mythology, it was the home of Medea
and of the golden fleece, the destination of Jason and the Argonauts (Zurabishvili,
1987:5). The country is also one of the world's most ancient Christian countries, dating
back as early as the fourth century (Goldstein, 1999:XVIII).
Furthermore, it was probably here that humans started to domesticate
grapevine and make wine for the first time in the history, over 8,000 years ago
(McGovern, 2003; Chilashvili, 2004). Over 500 varieties of vines have been recorded
in Georgia. Furthermore, the ancient Georgian tradition of winemaking method using
the Kvevri clay jars has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in
2013. The wine, together with a very specific cuisine and a strong tradition of
conviviality, is a vital part of Georgian identity and culture. As a result Georgia has a
strong tourist potential to offer and develop: among the others, eco-friendly, cultural,
heritage, leisure and gastronomy tourism.
The country was one of the most popular holiday destinations in the USSR, due to
its scenic beauty, its mild climate and a large number of health resorts. Data on Soviet
tourism are difficult to find. The most reliably figures assume that in the late 1980s
Georgia counted approximately 4.5 million visitors annually (Pavliashvili, 2003), of which
about two millions headed to sanatoria and health resorts. With the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the ensuing ethnic fragmentation and civil strife in Georgia, the conditions for
tourism in the country underwent deep constraints. Only in recent years the number of
visitors in the country reached, and even surpassed, that of Soviet period.
Tourism in today’s Georgia: opportunities and challenges
Georgia has experienced dramatic increases in the number of tourists over the past
decade. According to the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA) in 2014 the
number of international visits was about 5,49 million (Figure 2) and exceeded the
country’s total population, which amounts to 4,6 million people.
The World Tourism Organization's report, “UNWTO World Tourism Barometer”8,
highlighted that, in 2013, the increase in the number of international arrivals in Georgia
(about 22% over the previous year) was rated as the highest in Europe. From a statistical
point of view the increase of visitors was even higher in 2012, when the number of
international arrivals increased by 57% over the previous year. More in general, from
7 Gudauri, one of the most import ski resort of the country, has both natural resources and tourist infrastructure, but it doesn’t
have the resort status yet.
8UNWTO Volume 12, January 2014, retrieved on: http://accounts.unipg.it/~fpompei/UNWTO_Barom14_01_Jan.pdf
New Trends in Mountain and Heritage Tourism:
the Case of Upper Svaneti in the Context of Georgian Tourist Sector
69
2009 to 2014 inbound tourism increased over 3.6 times. The outlook for the industry is
highly optimistic and as a matter of fact the Lonely Planet travel guide elected Georgia
one of its top-10 Best Value Destinations for 20139 while, for Rough Guides, Georgia
ranks 5th among the “Top Ten Countries to Visit in 2014”10.
Such a positive result is mainly due to both public and private political priorities
in tourism industry after the Rose Revolution. Since 2004 - year in which, according to
the GNTA, the number of international arrivals was only 368,312 – the Georgian State
considers tourism as one of the major economic sectors, and has quickly adopted
reforms in developing and modernizing infrastructures: building of new airports,
railways, roads, hotels, recreational spas, swimming pools, water parks, aquariums,
national parks, etc.; reconstruction of historic monuments and settlements on a large
scale. The development of tourism in Georgia was also stimulated by providing a high
degree of security and by the easing of visa restrictions which opened the country to a
great amount of visitors (Alasania, 2013).
For the Georgian government, tourism plays an important political role, also
because it often involves and gets support by foreign aids and banks. For example, in 2012
the GNTA, together with the World Bank, implemented a regional development program
for the western part of Georgia, with a financial support amounting to USD 60 million
(TTG, 2014:16-17). As a consequence of this development, tourism in Georgia has become
one of the major sources of income. Services, including tourism, comprise approximately
60% of GDP, followed by industry and agriculture (Metreveli and Timothy, 2010:137).
Tourism contributed 6.5% to Georgia’s GDP in 2013 and employed about 169.000
persons in the fourth quarter of 2013, the 10% of total employment (GNTA, 2014:9).
However, despite big investments and efforts, it should be said that modern
physical infrastructure is still critical for the tourism industry. In particular, considering
that in 2013 most of foreign travellers came to Georgia by land (87%), but only a much
smaller fraction by air (11%)11, building of modern airports and improving the existing
airports should be a priority.
Figure 2. International visitors by years
(Source: Georgian National Tourism Administration - GNTA)
9 http://www.lonelyplanet.com/themes/best-in-travel/best-value-destinations/
10 http://www.roughguides.com/best-places/2014/top-10-countries/
11 GNTA, 2014:7.
Marianna CAPPUCCI,
Nino PAVLIASHVILI, Luca ZARRILLI
70
Furthermore, in order to become a more competitive and attractive destination for
western travellers, Georgia is still lacking tourism international standards and visibility:
in effect, one of the aspect of Georgia’s tourism industry is that most of the tourists come
from four neighbouring countries such as Turkey (30%), Armenia (24%), Azerbaijan
(20%), Russia (14%), and only 10% of visitors arrive from other countries (Figure 3).
Anyway the number of tourists from western countries –European Union
countries in primis – is increasing year by year (in 2013 there were 208,754
international arrivals from EU countries, representing a 4% share of total arrivals and
an increase of 22% over the previous year) .
Figure 3. International Arrivals in 2013 - Top Countries
(Source: Georgian National Tourism Administration - GNTA)
Another interesting aspect is related to the length of stay: in 2013, according to the
GNTA, out of the total number of visits, 39,6% were made by same day visitors, 22% were
made for the purpose of transit and only 38,4% lasted longer than 24 hours with an
average stay of 5 days (GNTA, 2014:5).
Looking at the purpose of the visit (figure 4), international visits were mostly
undertaken for holiday, leisure or recreation purposes (37%). Other frequently observed
purposes included visiting friends or relatives (26%), transit (17%), shopping (9%) and
business/professional trips (4%). Only 7% of visits were made for other purposes.
Figure 4. Main purposes of the visit
(Source: Georgian National Tourism Administration - GNTA)
Figure 5. Tourism types
(Source: Georgian National Tourism Administration - GNTA)
New Trends in Mountain and Heritage Tourism:
the Case of Upper Svaneti in the Context of Georgian Tourist Sector
71
Data included in figure 5 are of great interest for the aim of this paper. As
mentioned above, Georgia has very good conditions for the development of
environmental tourism thanks to its location, geography, landscape diversity, climate,
history and culture. Indeed the great majority (52%) of tourism activities in the country
are “nature-based”, such as camping, hiking, hunting, bird watching, swimming, fishing,
skiing, and mountain climbing, among others. Then, since “adventure tourism” (caving,
paragliding, rock climbing, etc.) can be considered in a way as “nature based”, it can be
said that over 65% of tourists going to Georgia are strongly attracted by its pristine
natural environment and landscape. Also cultural and ethnic aspects – including the
traditional cuisine and the good quality and variety of the local wine – play an important
role in choosing Georgia as a tourist destination.
Upper Svaneti
The myth of the Greek Argonauts’ voyage to Colchis is thought to be connected to
the gold of Svaneti which was brought to the region by the rivers’ currents. At that time
Svaneti was part of the Colchis Kingdom and was the only territory that supplied King
Ayet with gold. Svans (inhabitants of Svaneti) used sheep skin to capture gold – the skin
was fixed to a board that was placed into water wool side up. Once removed from the
water and dried, the gold would fall from dry wool. The legend of Golden Fleece comes
from this method of gold producing.
Svaneti is one of the most beautiful geographical provinces of Georgia. It comprises
of two parts – Upper and Lower Svaneti, which are divided by the Svaneti range and
belong to two municipalities – Mestia and Lentekhi. As Upper Svaneti has always been
secure and independent because of its isolation between high mountains, it preserved its
historical traditions and ethnographical peculiarities. Throughout history during
hostilities it was the depository for the whole Georgian cultural treasures and until now
the locals, especially old people, consider it their duty to defend them. That is why the
Upper Svaneti is of great interest to all visitors.
Greek historian and ethnographer Strabo wrote about the Svans that “They are
noteworthy for their courage and power, they reign over almost everything around them
and control the peaks of the Caucasus”.
Figure 6. Mt. Ushba, 4,710 m.a.s.l.
(Source: M.Tutberidze)
Marianna CAPPUCCI,
Nino PAVLIASHVILI, Luca ZARRILLI
72
Upper Svaneti (“ZemoSvaneti” in Georgian) has a rich history, picturesque natural
beauty and is located in the northern part of the country on the southern slopes of the
Caucasus in the upper part of the river Enguri stream. The region has plenty of tourist
resources, both natural and cultural. It is surrounded by wonderful high (more than
4,000 meters) white-capped peaks such as Shkhara (5,068 m – the highest peak of
Georgia), Tetnuldi, Ushba (Figure 6), Ailama, etc. There are wonderful forests, rivers,
several waterfalls (in the valley of the river Dolra), speleological caves (near Khaishi) and
lot of trekking and hiking areas all over the region.
Upper Svaneti is famous for its cultural tourist resources as well. Ancient Svans are
known for their tower settlements (Figure 7), cultivating unique species of wheat and
their own style of mural painting. Svans created musical instruments unique for the
region and also developed a tradition of woodcarving, examples of which can still be
found in some homes and churches. Svans have great respect for rituals. Their polyphonic
songs and specific dances are also unique for the region.
Since the Middle Ages the tower settlements of Svaneti served both as defense and
dwelling structures. Most of them are 20-25 meters high and have 4 or 5 floors connected
to each other by the internal wooden staircases.
Figure 7. Towers in Ushguli
(Source: M.Tutberidze)
In almost every village there is a small church. Many of them have ancient mural
painting inside; some of them have also facades with such paintings (e.g. churches in
Adishi, Lenjeri, Ushguli). Priceless ancient icons, crucifixes and valuable manuscripts are
still kept in those small churches.
The Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography in Mestia is a remarkable
tourist attraction (Figure 8). It was founded in 1936. Nowadays it has unique
archaeological, numismatic, ethnographic and photographical collections, manuscripts,
jewelry, vessels, weapons, painted and engraved crosses and icons. The items belong to
different periods from Neolithic to Middle Ages. Among the photographical exhibits
noteworthy are the works of significant Italian scholar, mountaineer and photographer
Vittorio Sella, who travelled to the Caucasia in 1889, 1890 and 1896 and whose photos
of landscapes, towers and humans compiles a richest archive. The museum affiliation is
New Trends in Mountain and Heritage Tourism:
the Case of Upper Svaneti in the Context of Georgian Tourist Sector
73
located in a tower of Ushguli. It has very valuable artefacts on display; the edifice itself
though is in need of serious restoration.
Figure 8 – Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography in Mestia
(Source: G. Khomeriki)
One of the most frequently visited destinations in Svaneti is village Chazhashi
(Ushguli community). Its architectural complex of towers was added to the UNESCO
World Heritage List in 1996. In accordance with this organization a 5 year project of the
village restoration has started this year. Noteworthy is the fact that mostly the local
dwellers are employed on these works, and slate, tower building main material, is mined
locally, from the banks of the river Enguri.
Fig. 9 – Queen Tamar Airport in Mestia
(Source: G. Khomeriki)
Marianna CAPPUCCI,
Nino PAVLIASHVILI, Luca ZARRILLI
74
Lately the number of tourists has been growing rapidly. The reason is that people in
many countries get better informed about this picturesque region – its interesting
architecture, nature and inhabitants, their traditions and folklore; so the significance of a
recently constructed motorway to Mestia (the administrative center of Upper Svaneti),
which increased the region’s availability, cannot be overestimated. The works in other
destinations continue. For the last two years the main tourist flows have been coming to
Mestia from the Kutaisi King David Agmashenebeli Airport and the Tbilisi International
Airport. Short-time flights on comfortable small planes are performed three times a week
from Natakhtari (near Tbilisi) to Mestia, the Queen Tamar Airport (named among top 10
unusual airports by the architects of Novate web-site, Figure 9). The service is rendered
by the “Service Air”, a Georgian operator.
The number of tourists has been increasing yearly. Three years ago the number of
tourists in Upper Svaneti was less than 9,000. In 2013 the region was visited by 13,431
tourists (Source: Svaneti Tourism Center in Mestia). In 2014 the trend was the same and
the number of tourists (16,053) exceeded the previous years data (Table 1).
Simultaneously it was mentioned that about 60% of all tourists come to the Tourism
Center for registration. So if we take this in account the real number of tourists would be
more than 26,700.
Table 1 - Number of tourists by months, 2011-2014
(Source: Svaneti Tourism Center)
month number of tourists
2011
2012
2013
2014
Januar
y
151
57
56
165
Februar
y
38
17
21
101
March
35
22
272
158
A
pril
177
59
308
108
Ma
y
525
572
1243
1767
June
1002
983
1784
1750
Jul
y
1431
3128
2820
2778
A
ugust
2610
2806
3222
4465
September
1817
2279
2641
2868
Octobe
r
1031
949
694
1398
November
92
89
263
444
December
45
74
107
51
total
8954
11035
13431
16053
During the Soviet period the Upper Svaneti was the destination basically for
domestic tourists and Russian visitors who came from the Northern Caucasus by
mountain passes of Becho, Tviberi and Nakra, stayed there in shelters for a while and
later continued on their way to the Black Sea shore of Georgia. It was a very popular route
for tourists in that period. In 1986 there was one hotel in Mestia with capacity of about
375 beds, and two shelters in Nakra and Tviberi with 70 and 45 beds respectively, but in
1996 only one tourist hotel (“Ushba”, with just 203 beds) was functioning.
Now as the number of tourists is growing fast, more accommodations are needed
and many Svans turn their habitats into guest houses, farm houses or hostels and run
them successfully, offering B&B on demand. Nowadays there are more accommodations
in the region than years ago: 249, among them 10 hotels, 102 guest houses, 136 farm
houses and 1 hostel (Table 2, Figure 10). It is hard to calculate their general capacity
though: most guest houses have 5 or 6 rooms of different sizes, so that the number of beds
that owners put in them varies significantly.
New Trends in Mountain and Heritage Tourism:
the Case of Upper Svaneti in the Context of Georgian Tourist Sector
75
Table 2 – Accommodations in Upper Svaneti
(Source: Svaneti Tourism Center)
Community
total
number hotel guest
house farm
house hostel
Mestia
70
10
59
1
Ushguli
34
7
2
7
Mulakhi
25
9
16
Becho
19
6
13
Ipari
15
6
9
Nakra
14
14
Chuberi
14
14
Kala
13
2
11
Lakhamula
9
9
Lenjeri
8
2
6
Etseri
7
2
5
Pari
6
6
Tskhumari
4
4
Khaishi
3
3
Latali
3
2
1
Tsvirmi
3
3
Idliani
2
2
Total
249 10
102
136
1
Figure 10 – Upper Svaneti – Tourist Accommodations
(Compiled by David Sichinava)
Marianna CAPPUCCI,
Nino PAVLIASHVILI, Luca ZARRILLI
76
The most popular tourist destinations in Svaneti are following: Mestia, Adishi,
Kala, Ushguli, Becho. The best months for visit are in summer (second part of July,
August and partially September), when the number of tourists is several times more than
in winter. But it should be emphasized that the winter tourism has great potential for
development: the Hatsvali complex on the mt. Zuruldi (8 km from Mestia), with 2,400
meters alpine skiing track for skiers of all capabilities is already functioning, Tetnuldi
complex is under construction and is said to be good especially for skilled skiers.
Regarding the main tourist generating countries, the majority of tourists come to
Svaneti from Poland, Israel, Russia, Germany and Ukraine and their number is diligently
increasing (Table 3). The aforementioned countries have been top of the list for several
consecutive years.
Table 3 - Main generating countries
(Source: Svaneti Tourism Center)
country number of tourists
2011
2012
2013
2014
1. Poland 1169 2120 3173 4771
2. Israel 2848 3133 3267 4016
3. Russia 155 655 1058 1173
4. Germany 590 547 746 934
5. Ukraine 321 488 930 701
It is remarkable that development of tourism in the region caused those Svans, who
years ago for ecological reason moved to Southern Georgia (Dmanisi municipality), to
return to their homeland, particularly to Ushguli and Khalde.
The government is involved in road construction, organization of water supply in
settlements. Besides it attracts investors and supports training of locals as tourist guides.
Food supply for the visitors in this region, at such high altitude, is no problem
whatsoever: locals grow potatoes and produce dairy products, while fruits and vegetables
are brought from Kutaisi.
Unemployment is the main problem in the region – young people are leaving
because of lack of jobs. Night life or eating out are alien notions for the region. Meanwhile
there are no swimming pools, only 2 spots (Becho and Chuberi) can boast with their mini
stadiums and souvenir shops are found only in Mestia and Ushguli. Public WCs are scarce
and of very poor quality.
Khaishi hydroelectric power station, which is under construction, presents a major
problem since it will supposedly cause partial inundation of the Khaishi area which causes
population’s anxiety. The year 2014 will see the completion of 12 towers’ roof restoration,
providing its quality is adequate.
Conclusions
Upper Svaneti can be considered a “newcomer” in the international tourist market.
Due to geographical and cultural reasons, it has suffered a long-lasting isolation, barely
mitigated, during the Soviet period, by overnights of transit tourist flows coming from
Russia and bound for the Black Sea coast.
Thanks to a combination of factors, Upper Svaneti is nowadays experiencing a
preliminary phase of tourist organization and development that could be defined "pioneer",
according to the model of Miossec (1976). It’s worth noticing that the growth of inbound
tourism is quite significant: international arrivals increased from almost 9,000 to more
than 16,000 in just four years (2011-2014). If the present trend is intended to continue, a
New Trends in Mountain and Heritage Tourism:
the Case of Upper Svaneti in the Context of Georgian Tourist Sector
77
stable although niche presence in the international market of both mountain and
heritage tourism is foreseeable in the near future.
As pointed out above, foreign tourists are coming mainly from Poland and Israel,
followed by Russia, Germany and Ukraine. In the case of Russia, notwithstanding the
difficult political relations, geographical proximity and economic viability are certainly
playing a leading role; furthermore, it's also worth mentioning that in 2012 Georgia
unilaterally abolished the existing visa system with Russia (operating since 2000), which
has simplified travel to Georgia for Russian citizens. For Ukraine and Poland cultural and
“geopolitical” affinities can probably be an explanation; moreover, the sharp decrease of
Ukrainian tourist between 2013 and 2104 is certainly due to the political turmoil that is
affecting that country.
In the case of Germany and Israel the “otherness” and the “exoticism” of Georgia in
general, and of Upper Svaneti in particular, are presumably the key factors; they are
associated, in the case of Israeli tourists, to a special interest in adventure tourism and
“off roading”, the latter being quite easy to experience in Georgia due to the features of
the territory and, maybe, to a more flexible approach by the authorities. In addition, it can
be argued that some of them come to Georgia because of nostalgia of the country where
they lived for about 26 centuries without any persecution or harassment.
The reasons for the ongoing development are manifold: the pathway of Georgia
towards a greater political and economic stability and stronger ties with the European
Union (Cappucci, 2013a, 2013b), which are fostering the overall inbound tourism in the
country; an increased accessibility of the area thanks to the improvement of the road
network and the establishment of air connections with Tbilisi; an intensive process of
rehabilitation of the human settlements, combined with the creation of tourist facilities; a
sharper presence in the international tourist imagery – and market – thanks to the
inclusion, in 1996, of the medieval stone tower complex of the village of Chazhashi in the
UNESCO World Heritage. However, it should be underlined that, notwithstanding the big
steps forward undertaken on the path of tourist development, still much remains to be
done for what concerns tourist image, which is still weak and lacks an adequate
international promotion, and civil and tourist facilities which, with few exceptions, are
still far from matching international standards.
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Submitted:
Revised:
Accepted and published online
18.07.2014 20.04.2015 23.04.2015
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