Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tourism? What tourism? - Svaneti

by Tony Hanmer

17.02.2013. I was in Mestia a week ago, and stopped in at the Tourism Centre in Seti Square. They’re usually a good source for recent copies of Georgia Today.

But the latest copies now are from December 2012 – itself a bad sign. And the tourism numbers are far, far down from this time a year ago. If anyone should know, it’s the people in this place. But so says everyone else I’ve asked – owners of a couple of guest houses in the town, my neighbour who was skiing at Hatsvali recently, and others. One of the December 2011 copies of GT which I have even projects a much more optimistic figure for current tourists – about 60,000 expected for 2013.

So, what’s happening? People say that Ivanishvili has declared that Georgia doesn’t need as many tourists as it has been getting recently. Is this a true quote? I turned to Google for an answer, and this is what I found: nothing – in English, anyway – to support this claim.

So now, Mestia’s renovation is well underway – the road up from Zugdidi, check; new town centre, check; many other new buildings going up, civil and personal, check; restoration of the skiing infrastructure (which hasn’t been running since long before I arrived in 1999, but was wonderful in its prime), check. What’s not yet happening is the filling of the newly made commercial spaces with shops or other businesses.

Seti Square’s beautiful new buildings have huge floor to ceiling glass windows allowing one to see just what’s happening inside. Again, there’s basically nothing to see. The glass is starting to get broken, the construction inside isn’t being finished.

Is this just a winter construction lull?

But the tourists, who were coming in relative droves a year ago... they’re gone too. My skiing friend saw two or three foreign skiers at Hatsvali the whole day, and they were Ukrainians.

To say this alarms me is putting it mildly. How many Svans have started new businesses of one kind or another in response to the influx? Either directly tourism-related, such as guest houses and hotels or guide services, or support structures for the tourism industry, or other things entirely. What are they supposed to do now, while they wait? They can’t afford to have their “Georgian dreams” dashed. Some have returned to Mestia or its surrounding villages from self-imposed exile, or exile forced by conditions such as avalanche destruction of homes, with new hopes. Land prices in the town had certainly gone beyond my wife’s and my reach when we were considering buying a house.

If I feel like this, I can’t really imagine how they feel, though I’m getting an idea, talking to them. Disappointed, at the moment; next, if things continue in this vein, maybe betrayed. My Facebook group isn’t named “Svaneti Renaissance” for nothing. I really long to see the revival this province has waited for, to be a part of it, even. Hopelessness has been too long a part of the regional psyche.

Years past, every season except winter was the time to visit Svaneti; winter left little reason, aside from the beauty of the snowy landscapes. But with Hatsvali recently competing successfully with Georgia’s other main ski areas – Bakuriani and Gudauri – there was more than hope that winter tourism would grow greatly – it was starting to happen. The advertisements for winter sports here state that they can be pursued until far later in the spring than in the other two areas in Georgia, due to the height of the mountains here and the delayed start to spring. So, the season should be in full swing now.

The president himself is a rarity these days in Svaneti, also unlike a year ago; maybe this also has something to do with the decline in numbers. But if something isn’t done soon, people may start giving up, abandoning those hopes – a thing the country can’t afford to let happen.



  1. Thanks for posting my article without asking either me or Georgia Today!

  2. Dear Mr. Hanmer,
    Georgia Today allows reposting its articles with reference to source: "Using materials of the site the reference on "Georgia Today" with the indication of the author is obligatory". This is indicated on your site's main page. If you have any further concerns or questions, please contact us by email.