In Georgia, it’s often said that tavisupleba mxolod mtebshia – freedom is only in the mountains. Indeed, the mountains have long shielded the small Georgian nation from much larger invaders, helping it maintain its freedom, as well as its unique culture, language and faith.
Even today, getting into Georgia’s mountains is no easy task. Separated from the ‘mainland’ by the 3,000m high Abano pass, Tusheti, is an excellent case in point. The sheer ‘outworldliness’ of Tusheti, as well as its well-preserved indigenous traditions and architecture, are a powerful motivator for many Georgians and international visitors alike to undertake the bumpy excursion to Omalo (and beyond).
The number of visitors to Tusheti has been growing quite rapidly in recent years, raising an important policy dilemma: what is the “optimal” level of development for this wild region of Georgia? On the one hand, tourism is strengthening the local economy by providing locals with an additional source of income. On the other hand, the arrival of 21 century invaders (in the shape of tourist ‘armies’) will undoubtedly strain the local infrastructure, requiring significant investment in roads, water supply and other utilities. Too much investment may strip Tusheti of its uniqueness. Too little of it may carry risks for health and the environment.
THE EMERGENCE OF A TOURISM SECTOR
A few decades ago, if anyone had heard anything about Tusheti, it was mostly about sheep and sheep farming, and the fact that the Tushetian people were the best shepherds in Georgia. The economy of Tusheti is quickly changing, however, and while many Tushetians are still involved in agricultural pursuits, others have learned to cater to adventure-seeking tourists.
The tourism season in Tusheti lasts for only five or six months per year (usually from May to October), due to the closure of the road because of heavy snowfall. The Tushetian people (and staff of the guesthouse owners or service providers) therefore live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, working partly in the mountains and partly in the Aloni/Alvani valley in the lowland Akhmeta municipality.
In Tusheti, there are currently three types of protected areas, including the Tusheti National Park (which is one of the largest in Europe with nearly 70,000 hectares of land).Tusheti became well-known among international tourists and Georgians alike after these areas received official protected area status in 2003. Since then, visitors have flocked to Tusheti, as illustrated in the graph below.
Source: Administration of Tusheti Protected Areas
Remarkably, only a decade ago, one could not find any lodging facilities for tourists in Tusheti, but now there are 40 guesthouses, hotels or bed and breakfasts. Even more are under construction, including a large modern hotel in Omalo (similar in style and spirit to Kazbegi Rooms). Alongside these investments, the number of people involved in the tourism industry is expanding as well, and so too are the incomes from tourism service provision.
MANAGING REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT
In order to facilitate further tourism and to boost people’s incomes in the region, additional steps could be taken to improve local infrastructure and services.
First and foremost, this concerns the road to Tusheti. At the moment, visiting Tusheti is rather difficult for tourists, as traveling to the mountains and back takes nearly two days alone. Tourists also require 4x4 SUVs to reach Tusheti. Indeed, in 2013, the road to Tusheti was stated as one of the world’s most dangerous roads by BBC. On the one hand, this kind of dangerous road attracts a certain type of tourist there, especially for off-roaders and adventure tourists, but on the other hand, it is sometimes the hindering factor for tourists to visit Tusheti.
Regular flights (Mimino-style, via helicopter) to Tusheti could be an important transportation substitute. This would economize on the travel time to Tusheti (improving upon the current 6-7 hour drive from Tbilisi) and avoid the dangerous and uncomfortable road for many tourists.
Currently, there aren’t any regular and organized shops or marketplaces where one can buy locally-made food (meat, milk products, potatoes, etc.). Other possible activities for further development could be the establishment of a locally-made souvenir market (especially selling wool stuff, and not relying upon synthetic wool), diversification and better “packaging” of tourist products/activities (especially agritourism), organizing festivals in the region, and further developing hiking routes and signs.
The municipal water supply system in Omalo is already under a lot of strain, limiting access to this crucial resource. Further attention by the local authorities to this issue may be required, especially if a large-scale hotel like the one in Kazbegi is to be constructed. As we learned in Eric Livny’s recent blog post, in the absence of necessary upgrades to infrastructure, the benefits of tourism may not be fully realized, leading instead to conflicts between locals and actors in the tourism sector.
At the same time, there are many reasons to be concerned with Tusheti’s ‘overdevelopment’. While talking with tourists in Tusheti, they could not hide their happiness to see Tusheti still wild and not modernized and developed, which poses somewhat of a trade-off to consider. Some Tushetians also argue that the difficult road conditions (and the Abano pass, which has an altitude of 3,000 meters), the seasonality of tourism, and the nomadic sheep and cow herders are the safeguards of Tusheti’s sustainable development.
Further growth in tourism can certainly accelerate rural development across the region, increasing incomes for those living and working in Tusheti. Yet, when thinking about the development of this region, all of the above-mentioned factors should be taken into consideration, both to ensure that the full benefits of tourism are achieved and that freedom can still be found in Georgia’s mountains.
Special thanks to the Administration of Tusheti Protected Areas for providing the data used in this article.