Issue 4, 2013. August-September

   

SHOPPING FOR SOUVENIRS

Georgia's tourism industry is in overdrive as the number of international visitors - and domestic tourists - continues to grow. But while investors are building hotels and the government is paving roads, there are a surprisingly limited number of places for visitors to spend money outside of major urban areas like Tbilisi and Batumi.

Intricate rugs, beautiful handcrafted jewelry, t-shirts, magnets, and miniature flags: artisans and entrepreneurs in Tbilisi are finally catching on to the souvenir business. But travel to any one of Georgia's breathtaking regions, and the opportunity to buy things quickly evaporates.

Natalia Kvachantiradze, the chairman of the Georgian Tourism Association (GTA), said the lack of souvenirs is a "problem" for the rural tourism industry.

"[Villagers] want to sell but there are not enough shops where the tourists can come and spend money - it is a big problem," she said.

"We want to help people who live in the regions to increase their incomes."

Around the world, the commercial trappings of tourism - the money spent on hotels, restaurants, shops, and local services - is a multi-billion dollar industry. And Georgia is missing out: a 2011-2012 survey by the Georgian National Tourism Agency found that international visitors spent just 546 lari ($330) during their trips, far below other countries.

The lack of facilities around popular tourist destinations, like the Holy Trinity (Sameba) Church in Kazbegi, could be part of the problem.

Irakli Toloraia, the Rural Economic Development Advisor for the USAID-funded Georgia New Economic Opportunities (NEO) Initiative, noted that an initial study into tourism in the Kazbegi region uncovered a real demand for cafes and shops near the church.

While busloads of tourists travel to the site on a regular basis, not all the travelers make the trek to the church, leaving them to sit on the bus for hours, waiting for their fellow passengers to return so they can finish their trip.

As part of the four-year Rural Economic Development program, NEO worked with locals in Kazbegi, awarding grants to individuals and businesses that could fill that gap.

One of the recipients, Luka Gotsiridze, built the first modern souvenir- making factory. Located in Aragvispiri, Dusheti municipality, Combimap employs 16 people and has sold 200,000 souvenirs locally - as well as 60,000 souvenirs internationally.

Gotsiridze told Investor.ge he decided to start producing small souvenirs in 2008 after he realized that the items for sale for tourists were too big and bulky for the average tourist to buy and take home. But he is one of the few to branch out into the business: the lack of production facilities in Georgia mean souvenirs have to be mass produced abroad, a complicated procedure for many small businesses, Gotsiridze noted.

In addition, private financing is still expensive and relatively difficult to obtain for rural households. Organizing and educating tour guides about newly opened facilities is another stumbling block, Kvachantiradze noted.

"People in the village don't know how to create businesses and develop this [sector] and they need someone who will be more active in this [process]," she said, noting that GTA, as well as other tourism associations, NGOs and donors have created a tourism advisory board with the government to tackle issues like creating souvenir shops and workshops in rural communities.

Toloraia, however, remains optimistic that Georgian entrepreneurs are up for the challenge. He noted that at popular destinations like Vardzia cave complex, services for tourists have started to open.

"Nothing is happening in one day. In Svaneti for example, they used to have tourists during the Soviet times so they know how to behave with tourists. But a couple of years ago, we had places in Georgia where if you asked a guesthouse owner to take money from guests for food, they were ashamed or angry about it because these were guests," he said.

"But I think everything will come little by little."