Issue 4, 2018. August-September

   

OFF THE BEATEN PATH: GEORGIA'S UNTAPPED POTENTIAL FOR AGROTOURISM

Georgia's rural communities represent an underutilized market for tourism, both domestic and foreign. From wine-making and spa treatments to cooking classes and wilderness trails, the potential for tourism beyond the Tbilisi-Kazbegi-Batumi corridor continues to attract interest and investors.

Lika Jorjoliani

Homemade wine, organic tomatoes, fresh cheese straight from the farm: rural tourism in Georgia has always seemed like an easy fit.

But for years the sector struggled to compete with the draw of Tbilisi and traditional destinations like Kazbegi and Batumi. Today, that is starting the change, according to tourism specialists and policymakers.

Untapped Potential

Rural commuities are developing tours that involve nature hikes and horseback riding.

Georgian villages are benefiting from the international trend toward more rural tourism, noted Tamar Toria, the Executive Director of the Association of Farms of Georgia.

The tendency could be a boom for local farmers and rural communities as an alternative source of income, but more needs to be done to develop the sector, she told Investor.ge.

Noting that Georgia has "potential," Toria said it is "not developed properly" right now due to a myriad of reasons, including the lack of local experience, absence of promotion and poor infrastructure.

She noted that two years ago, the Association invited a Dutch specialist to evaluate the potential of ten member farms that are engaged in agricultural tourism.

After the trip, Toria said, the specialist was generally impressed with the accommodations. His main complaint: the toilets and bathing facilities.

Georgian cooking is a big attraction for rural tourism.

Nana Kartvelishvili, the coordinator of the Network of Agricultural Tourism at Association Elkana, agreed that providing high-standard infrastructure and "hygienic sites" is still a problem.

But she noted that the growth in agricultural tourism has been noticeable over the past decade and Elkana has helped create a chain of rural guesthouses that meet international standards.

Rural tourism development in Georgia was first initiated by Elkana's Tourism and Rural Development Project, which ran from June 2006 through June 2012 and was financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Prior to that, there were few family-run guesthouses, and those that did exist were located close to the major tourism sites.

"Ten to fifteen years ago, tourists were located only in large towns; today tourists have more choices. But, still we have a problem with equipping of these hotels, improving of the infrastructure and hygienic sites," she told Investor.ge.

Guesthouses are marketing local traditions and wine.

The six-year program helped create a base for agricultural tourism, Kartvelishvili said.

"A tourist network for agricultural tourism was created after 2012, combining family hotels. We are working in eight regions and want to connect the ninth one - the Samegrelo Region . . . We created a website and have a system for the booking of hotels," Kartvelishvili said.

The network, known as the Rural Tourism Network, unites 186 guesthouses in eight regions of the country. Members of the network meet a unified quality standard and are promoted through the organization's website, www.ruraltoursim.ge.

She added that, as part of the program, Elkana inspects the hotels and gives them recommendations to help improve their services, including training for farmers.

One of farmers' biggest takeaways from the training was the need for investment to create guesthouses and hotels that meet international standards.

In general, Kartvelishvili said, at this stage agricultural tourism is not "a main source for receiving incomes," although it does provide an additional source of revenue for farms.

Bucharest, Rome, Kutaisi

There have been some exceptions, she said, and some rural households have succeeded at making tourism their main business.

The potential is real, and the desire - and need - in local communities for such business is palatable.

Search any Georgian destination on Booking.com and a flurry of guesthouses from Batumi to Oni pops up.

Farmer Levan Khmelidze lives in the Tsageri municipality, in the village Korelishi, where he and his partner have been operating Rich Point Georgia, a tourism agency, for the past two years. "It is a family business; we opened a hostel two years ago. At this stage, we can host 16 people," he said, noting that most of his business comes from tourists from former Soviet countries, although there has been interest from European tourists and tour operators.

Khmelidze said tourists are usually interested in the family's vineyard and winery, where they cultivate Tsolikauri grapes for Tvishi wine.

He said that while many of the country's over seven million visitors opt to travel to Kakheti, Svaneti or Kazbegi, his family is working hard to promote Racha and their region, Lechkhumi.

CAPTIONS

"Here we have all the conditions for the development of agricultural tourism, high mountainous jeep tours and ski tourism. In addition to beautiful nature, we offer local dishes made from locally cultivated products . . . Lechkumi bacon is very famous. We have already researched Lechkhumi's potential and created several tour packages consisting of two-, three- and seven-day packages. In the scope of the tours we acquaint tourists with local sightseeing spots and folklore," he said.

Their efforts have already started to pay off: last year, a group of Italian winemakers and journalists stayed at the hotel.

"We organized a tour for them in seven regions, including Lechkhumi. They visited our wine cellar and tasted wine. After visiting of the site, they posted a lot of interesting comments and articles. We are working on actively promoting of our region . . . I think that it is very important to raise awareness about our region, as well as to have well-developed infrastructure," Khmelidze told Investor.ge.

Deputy Minister of Agricultural Sector and Natural Protection of Georgia Gela Khanishvili underscored that infrastructure is a key component to bringing tourists to rural areas, like the country's remote Tusheti, famed for its mountain vista views and delicious cheese.

The government has been actively expanding and improving the road network between cities and rural communities. In addition, international airline Wizz Air is bringing tourists directly to Imereti, which makes it easier for tourists to visit Kutaisi and other areas nearby.

Rural communities in other areas are also working to promote their regions to tourists.

Karina Bezhashvili, the chair of the NGO Interethnic Union of Kvemo-Kartli, has been actively promoting rural tourism for years.

Bezhashvili has been working with guesthouses in Armenia and in Kvemo-Kartli as part of a project to build cooperation between countries in the EU's Eastern Partnership.

Tourism, she said, helps rural communities create employment for the youth and build ties across borders.

"The project is focused on expanding the tourism potential of the region. Mainly, the project supports the creation of cross-border tourism packages to attract domestic and international tourists," she said, adding that locals received training as guides and are working to meet a growing interest in agricultural and ethnic tours.

"Bolnisi is populated by many ethnic groups, mainly Greek, Armenian and Azerbaijani families. In fact, we offer trips to our farms and the opportunity to taste national cuisines," she told Investor.ge.

The NGO is planning a festival in September in honor of the local Khachinski pepper, a delicacy that was well-known during the Soviet Union. In addition, they are working on preserving local wine-making traditions with the 50 grape varieties that are native to the area.

Cheese and wine

The government has also been promoting traditional products such as regional cheese and qvevri wine - Georgia's ancient method of fermenting grapes in large, oblong terracotta vessels buried in the ground.

In Kakheti, Shiumi wine company hosts tourists from around the world, company director Akaki Tsopurashvili told Investor.ge.

Interest in Georgian wine is so high that Shiumi created the country's only museum dedicated to grapes and Vasioni wine. The museum, located at the winery in Tsinandali, has vintage wines from over 300 types of grapes, including 92 European varieties, he said.

It also provides guests with a detailed history of Georgia's winemaking traditions.

Tsopurashvili said the wine museum and tours are so popular that the winery is opening a hotel near the winery.

He noted that developing agricultural tourism is important for the country for more than just economic reasons. Tsopurashvili agreed that developing the sector could help to create jobs and improve the livelihoods of rural communities. Equally important, he added, is that it could motivate people to preserve and "study local traditions" - helping sparsely populated areas in the country develop.