GOVERNMENT CAMPAIGNS FOR GEORGIANS TO TRAVEL AT HOME
The Georgian government is working hard to inspire a new tradition in Georgia: traveling at home. Historically, Georgians have traveled to the sea in the summer and the mountains in the winter - missing out on all the other natural wonders and great places that foreign tourists see during their trips to the country.
The ancient stone towers and dramatic landscapes of Georgia's remote mountain regions have long drawn tourists from all over the world - except Georgians.
For years, Georgians travelled a well-worn route - Black Sea resorts in the summer and ski resorts in the winter - ignoring the villages and mountain vistas that have made Georgia a popular destination for foreign tourists.
"Get to know Georgia"
To break that cycle, the state tourism body, the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA), has tapped local celebrities and public figures to record their adventures around the country as part of a new campaign, "Get to Know Georgia" (გაიცანი საქართველო).
There are also new media tours for local journalists to Georgia's many national parks, canyons and other tourist destinations in the country.
"It has been less than two months since we started this promo project, and we have already seen a better outcome than we had expected," Giorgi Chogovadze, head of GNTA, told Investor.ge in an interview. He noted that celebrities are lining up to participate, Tand V channels are airing GNTA's videos for free and voluntarily broadcasting reports on Georgia's tourism destinations.
The result? Selfies taken in front of Okatse and Gachedili Canyons in western Georgia have overwhelmed news feeds of Georgian users of Facebook recently.
GNTA noted that Georgians are already taking an increased interest in locations off the beaten beach/skipath: areas in western Samegrelo, such as Gvalashara Gorge and Toba of Kalashi, are emerging as fresh new destinations.
"We arranged a festival at Tobavarchkhili Lake (only accessible by foot or horse after a several-day trip) and 100 volunteers joined," Chogovadze said.
He added that local tour agencies are also picking up on the new trend, and helping to organize trips to local destinations.
The drive to encourage more Georgians to travel at home is part of GNTA's new strategy to increase both domestic and international tourism in Georgia.
A New Generation of Travelers
Tour agencies are already noticing a change.
Niko Tsivilashvili founded "Walk around Georgia" (მოიარე საქართველო) tourism agency in June last year. He notes that over the past 12 months, the number of travelers using the agency has doubled.
"I had been hiking every weekend and it was not always easy to find co-hikers. And on many occasions I ended up alone. Then I started this agency," Tsivilashvili said, and added that now he sees it as a business, not just a hobby. In his recent tour to Shatili, Khevsureti, 85 people joined.
There are still some hiccups: Levan Lomsianidze, a founder of "My Georgia is Here" (ჩემი საქართველო აქ არის), noted that local tourism - especially hiking and camping - is limited since the country lacks well-marked trails and routes in many areas.
"Currently, protected territories are only exceptions in which have marked routes. So for the rest of the areas, we - the trip organizers - have to go through the planned routes using maps and GPS alone before bringing our clients there," he said.
Chogovadze told Investor.ge that the agency is working on create more marked trails and tourist routes throughout the country.
"In order to develop hiking routes throughout Georgia, research and fieldwork are underway in five Georgian regions - Samtskhe-Javakheti, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Samegrelo, Racha-Lechkhumi, Upper and Lower Svaneti- and we plan to do the same in the remaining regions as well next year. As a result, within two or three years, Georgia will have a unified system of hiking routes, which is pretty big and demanding job," Chogovadze explained.
The routes will target not only professional hikers. Close to tourist landmarks, GNTA will mark short walking paths and longer, one-day routes.
Last year, GNTA completed marking five routes in Kakheti, including those for hiking, jeep touring, and cycling, in Dedoplistskaro municipality. Works are now close to being completed in Bakuriani and Gudauri for creating cycling routes.
Ekaterine Shakulashvili, an economist, is an early convert. "When I see all these beautiful places, it makes me proud that I was born here," she said.
Every month she travels to new places in Georgia, using tour companies.
After returning from the $83/190 lari trip to Tusheti - "the most unforgettable one" - she said it seems like more Georgians are taking advantage of domestic travel.
"My friends are traveling more frequently, and what I love most of all is that I see that whole families are participating," she told Investor.ge.
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