SKIING IN GEORGIA: ADVICE FROM ABROAD
Georgia is spending millions to develop its ski resorts, but Bruce Packard, President of the Alpine Ski Club, notes the country can learn the value of preserving what it already has from the successes of other, developed, ski destinations.
One of Georgia's successes over the last few years has been the growth in tourism. In the first 11 months of 2016, government figures show that total international arrivals were up 8% year-over-year to 5.6 million people, while the number of tourists increased 19.3% year-over-year to 2.5 million people.
A key part of this has been the development of the trekking and ski industry. A recent ski lift in Mestia was followed by a six-man "poma" chairlift on the slopes of Mount Tetnuldi in Svaneti. According to the state budget, over the next two years, 111 million GEL is to be invested in Georgian ski resorts.
When I visited Mestia a few years ago on an Alpine Ski Club trip, the chairlift was far from the main town. So the announcement of the construction of the Mestia-Hatsvali lift (at a cost of 20 million GEL), which will lift up people from the town to the ski area makes some sense.
Now we have plans for an artificial lake, biathlon track, ski jumps and expensive snow machines in Gudauri, Bakuriani and Mestia. Let's hope that the ambitious plans do not come at the expense of improving existing infrastructure.
Adventurous skiers who leave the well-groomed pistes of the Alps don't expect the standard of resort infrastructure of Zermatt or Val D'Isere.
They understand the risks and inconveniences of going to less-developed resorts. In fact, that is part of the attraction. Rather than expensive hotels and foreign chairlifts that are hard to get spare parts for, perhaps there are smaller, simpler projects.
For instance, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus had a network of mountaineering huts on both the Russian and Georgian sides of the border. The advantage of these huts was that each of consisted of a warm, dry, wooden building located in the heart of the mountains, which meant that one didn't need to carry a heavy tent, food and cooking equipment on one's back.
All over the Alps, Pyrenees and Scandinavia, these huts provide infrastructure for tourists. They also provide local employment for those building and maintaining them. Often they are left unattended over the winter. Sometimes a "guardian" stays there, looking after the building, cooking for guests, and providing weather updates and good knowledge of local conditions.
In fact, I can think of several developed-country resorts that I have been to that do not have chairlifts, artificial lakes, or snow machines at all, for example, Jotunheim in Norway and Benaques in Spain. But these resorts are still popular with tourists all year round because of the hut system.
In the Caucasus, the foundations of these huts still exist. For instance, when I visited, we spent all day dragging our 25-kg packs up the Mazeri valley and camped near one such hut, in the shadow of Mount Ushba. But they are not in usable condition. When the Soviet Union collapsed, local people failed to maintain the huts. No one owned them, and it was hard enough just to survive through those bad times. But this was a short-sighted mistake, for the huts brought tourists—and tourist dollars—into the mountain areas.
Valuing the Invaluable
In one sense, it is easier for the government to spend millions on foreign-made ski lifts, artificial lakes and snow machines, as the hut system requires the support and commitment of ordinary local people. It requires people to change the way they think about what is valuable.
When we visited the beautiful mountain town of Mestia, we were surprised at how unattractive some parts of town were. Local people seemed to throw their plastic bottles and rubbish in the river. This is not a wealthy area, so perhaps it is unfair to compare the Svans to the Swiss or the Norwegians. But if your greatest wealth is your mountain environment, then it makes sense to look after it. It is harder to achieve this cultural change, in which people see their local environment as valuable, but in the long run, it is worth the trouble.
To develop Georgian mountain resorts into competitors that will rival those in Switzerland or Norway is an ambitious goal. The good news is that this isn't an "either/or" situation. The government can continue to spend large sums on more eye-catching projects. But if a small fraction of the announced money went toward rebuilding huts and adding to existing infrastructure, that would be a success.
Now that Wizzair flies to Kutaisi, many of my friends are interested in the skiing potential of Georgia. And the number of adventure tourists is likely to increase. Let's hope that all the investment pays off.
Bruce Packard is President of the Alpine Ski Club. For a full account of Bruce Packard's trip to Mestia and Mazeri, see the Alpine Ski Club at http://www.alpineskiclub.org.uk/newsletters/.