Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kazbegi - a Georgian region with great tourism potential

-Kazbegi, a Georgian Region with the potential for year round tourism

The great diversity of Georgia’s nature and its many tourist attractions give visitors many possibilities to rest, have fun, spend free time, obtain medical treatment, satisfy their curiosity, learn, conduct educational activities, etc… In addition to these, “niche” and “specialty” travel sector also can be abundantly found in Georgia. The country and its people, natural beauty, and location is opportune to meet any requirement, if thing could be well-organized.

Can Georgia really develop tourism?
This country, small but rich in tourism resources, has a long tradition of tourism, which flourished during the Soviet period. At that time Georgia sought to also be the most attractive and interesting designations in the Soviet Union for Soviet and foreign tourists.  However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the terrible events in Georgia in the aftermath, tourism infrastructure and centrally planned and organized tourism were almost completely destroyed, and these were the only sphere impacted.
The violent removal of the first government of newly-independent Georgia,  and the subsequent civil war and structural collapse, bloody war in the Abkhazia and Samachablo regions (South Ossetia) and the conduct of the Shevardnadze regime reduced the country to dire circumstances. The tourism industry was prevented from developing as many had expected.   
As is known, after the “Rose Revolution” the newly elected government of Georgia, which has an international reputation as a promoter of significant and swift reforms, declared it would make the tourism sector a priority and develop its full potential. Unfortunately, however, other aspects of the economy may have been neglected in this process, such as the agriculture sector, although it is in the best interests of tourism development that all sectors of Georgia thrive.

According to Tourism Department data, two million foreign tourists visited Georgia in 2010. The Department expects that number will increase upward of three million in 2011.. For 2001, 240 million GEL have been allocated to develop Batumi, Anaklia and Mestia resorts.This very pleasant statistic would be more appealing if it was not for the other side of the coin. It is said: “better to see once than hear a thousand times.” We will try to describe here what we saw and experienced in one of the mountainous regions of Georgia, exactly the sort of place seeking tourist revenue.

According to Collaborative Enterprises, a Georgian-based voluntary association supporting tourism, “Georgia has always had friends, and on this occasion American friends have been trying to find out whether it is possible to develop tourism in the Kazbegi region on a high level,” known locally as Stephantsminda. The region is distinguished by its unique geographical location and good climate, which makes it possible to develop year round tourism. Such a possibility is very rare in other many preferred seasonal tourism destinations.

Kazbegi Region
Kazbegi is located at the far northern border of Georgia, near the Dariali mountain pass, which is Georgia’s northern gateway to the Russian Federation. In March 2010 this once-closed border pass was opened by decision of the Georgian Government. On our way to Kazbegi in early January we met several citizens of the Russian Federation. They were very grateful for this decision and said that people who enter Georgia from the Russian Federation can breathe easily there.
     “Here, there is no corruption, nobody looks into your pocket and nobody asks for money,” said Murtaz, who is originally from Chiatura and did                     not want to give his surname. He works as a banker in Moscow and has Russian citizenship. He tells us his story and describes how terrible the corruption situation is in Russia.

“There is no comparison. It is real heaven here. In Russia everybody tries to make money corruptly. Money, that’s all they are interested in. In Russia you can do everything if you have enough money,” said Murtaz. 

The opening of the Dariali border pass and the fact that our customs service works properly means that there are good chances for tourism to develop in Kazbegi. However, it is still unclear who will take charge of tourism development in Kazbegi or the other mountainous regions of Georgia. Locals do not know and seem clueless about how to go about it themselves; they seem lost and without direction. Some of them do not believe that tourism development will happen and have lost confidence in investors as well. When we talked to people from the region they said that different investment companies had come to Kazbegi with different offers, but in reality nothing had been done.
Mrs. Lali Seturidze has her own business in Kazbegi – she is the owner of two family hotels. She told us that big companies like ELKANA, a rural development NGO, and the Millennium Challenge Compact, a US government-funded scheme to improve tourism, have come to Kazbegi. Representatives of these organizations have met with the locals.  However, “We still see no results,” said Lali. Nonetheless, she still thinks that it is possible that investors and NGOs will be able to implement projects in the region.
Even though the valleys of the Kazbegi region are very beautiful, life in the mountains is very hard. Agriculture, which could become the foundation of tourism development in this beautiful place, is practically non-existent. Many villages are empty and the land left unattended. Unfortunately, this is not only a problem for this region. It is the same in other parts of Georgia: Imereti, Guria, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Adjara, Racha-Lechkhumi and others.

The level of customer service continues to be the greatest to tourism in Georgia, for domestic and internal tourist alike.  Tourists can come, but how will they be provided with services? By providing good customer service it is possible to resolve such problems as income generation and employment and provide good investment conditions. The worst customer service situation is in the mountainous regions of Georgia. Even though the local population has tried to assure us that everything is fine, a developed tourist system does not really exist in Stephantsminda, especially in the off-season. The reality on the ground is far from what we read about in the shiny brochures printed on high quality paper. This sphere needs much attention, especially during this so called period of transition, as it plays a crucial role in the formation of a stable socio-economic situation in the country.  

Upon reaching Kazbegi these problems became only too clear,  starting out with no money exchange office in the immediate region, other than the banks, which only operate during the day and not on weekends. What can tourists who come from abroad and only have their own currency with them do? For Georgians this is not a problem, as they change money in Tbilisi and have more connections.  
A father and son, both Americans tried to change money in Gudauri, thinking that a ski resort would offer all sorts of services. Moreover, there are a lot of hotels there, including the high-class Marco Polo hotel, built during Shevardnadze’s time. The locals told us that in that hotel there would be a money exchange service, so we decided to check it out.  However, when we reached the hotel, we were very much surprised to be told that for several years there has been no money exchange service in the Marco Polo or any other hotel. Still the Americans were not able to exchange their currency.

We were also told that all payments in the hotel are conducted by credit card or ATM. Despite this, a blank exchange rate board was displayed saying that the hotel offered money exchange service for currencies which do not exist anymore (like the German Mark and French Franc). We must admit that this board looked very nice. It is probably cleaned by the Marco Polo staff every week, if not every day. But nobody has taken the initiative to remove it, despite the fact that was a bit out-of -date.

We looked for an Internet café in Kazbegi as well. The locals told us, much to our surprise, that it does not make any sense to open an Internet café in the region, especially in winter time. “It needs a lot of resources, a license is needed and then you have to pay too many taxes… Who will come here? Even if some do come, there will not be enough people to make it work”, is how the locals think.

More importantly, during our trip our American friends had difficulty finding places to eat. In order to get breakfast we entered several advertised cafés and restaurants in the center of Kazbegi. All of them turned out to be closed. Fortunately we did eventually find one so-called restaurant, which was open, but even there they only had the ingredients for preparing “khinkali” and a few eggs. We didn’t want to complain too much, but it took so long to bring the coffee that we had forgotten we had even ordered it. These events gave us the impression that during the winter the region and people of Kazbegi simply hibernate.

The following July 2011, five tourists, one from Canada and four from Thailand, went to Kazbegi for a day trip. They also had difficulty finding places to eat. Apart from a small stand selling the usual Georgian snacks and a “café” with no seating area and a very limited menu, there was nowhere else to eat. They were only able to find one toilet facility in the town centre. It was dirty and smelly and they charge 50 tetri (approximately 35 cents).

For those who don’t wish to walk up the mountain to get to Sameba church, they have the option to take a taxi, but the drivers charge an unreasonable rate of 40 GEL (US$25), not something that all tourists can afford.  Sadly such poor customer service and value for the money is not only typical of this region. The print-off of guesthouses published by the Georgian Department of Tourism lists many places to stay, but out of the list of 17 places in Stephantsminda only a few were open during the wintertime. Not a single word of warning is given about what tourists might expect when trying to use this list, especially in the off season, and what they can expect during the high season.  

Guesthouse owners who mostly live in Tbilisi only ran their businesses during the tourist season. Some of the guesthouses gave us their mobile phone numbers to publish, but we learned that most of them actually live in Tbilisi. Only a few actually live in Kazbegi itself. 
We really like to thank one of them, Mrs. Lali Seturidze, the owner of the guest house in which we stayed for only 15 GEL per day, who offered us very clean and warm rooms. This lady lives in Kazbegi and knows all the region’s problems very well. She told us that it would be very good if a private investor provided low interest loans, or offered small grants to develop the region, or start up an association.
This raises the question: would it not be better if private investors were allowed to develop tourism, as the Department of Tourism has tried very hard but failed to do so? But are such investors to be found?

Just a few weeks the initial visit to the region the same father and son also visited Batumi.  They shared their views by email for this article, saying that “the biggest 'minus' at this time of year is the heavy rain, which leaves the unrepaired streets covered in big pools of water, etc. Until they get the roads and the underground water system repaired (an enormous job, but they could have done it already) there is no likelihood of any winter tourism taking off. The Sheraton Hotel is open, as are some smaller hotels that are working, but these aren't always heated very well (a supply of water can be problem too). Unless you are willing to pay top money it is a scramble to find a room at a normal price with good heating and water pressure”.
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