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.
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.
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%.
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):
- Lack of cooperation and communication between private and public sector on planning and implementation of tourism in the regions.
- Ad-hoc, unplanned tourism development with no vision and long-term strategy. No DMO to oversee the strategic development.
- Lack of professional hospitality, management and language skills amongst the local population.
- Seasonality and short stay of tourists.
- Poor quality of products and services.
- Poor and non-diversified product offer.
- Lack of strategic and coordinated marketing.
- Poor trail management (marking, maintenance; the inability to utilise the existing network of trails for tourism development).
- Poor waste management – no waste collections in villages; rubbish is thrown into rivers.
- Poor infrastructure (particularly access roads to mountainous villages).
But it is not all doom and gloom. The SWOT analysis conducted jointly by the attendees showed that the main strengthes are Georgia’s rich and diverse natural resources and culture, as well as the potential for adventure tourism development in a 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.
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 is a Sustainable Tourism Specialist for the Caucasus region. She has been closely involved in the development of the Transcaucasian Trail since 2015. She is also working as Sustainable Tourism expert with the Georgian National Tourism Administration and the World Bank to develop Destination Management Organisations (DMOs), and is advising Georgian and Armenian tourism businesses on sustainability.