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.
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 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 also 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.
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, again 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 – is 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.
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 of those live in Tbilisi. So an even smaller number of locals in rural areas (where most tourists tend to go) will have to deal with these 11 million 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 Mills is a sustainable tourism specialist on the Caucasus who writes regularly for Travindy on the region’s tourism development. She has been part of the team developing the Transcaucasian Trail project since 2015. She is currently working as Sustainable Tourism expert for the World Bank project to develop sustainable Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) as well as national and regional marketing strategies, and is advising Georgian tourism companies on sustainability. Her own blog can be found at oneplanetblog.com