POLITICS
“Georgia could soon be ready for regulations”
12 September, 2019
“With big money you can either build or destroy something”, says Vano Vashakmadze. The consultant for development in tourism helped to work out the new zone planning implemented by the government.

Vano Vashakmadze, tourism is thriving in Georgia. But critics say that the government is aiming for the masses instead of concentrating on quality. Do you agree?

In the tourism strategy from 2015 to 2025 the government has clearly focused on becoming a high-quality destination that is genuine and offers a top-class
experience. But it is one thing to declare something and another to put it into practice. Tourism is a highly competitive field and one of the leading industries in Georgia. The country spends 10 million US dollars a year on promoting itself as a destination.

Where does the money get spent?

A lot of it goes into international events and expos. But the reality is that 88% of the tourists Georgia attracts come from our neighbouring countries. To change that I would advise going more for the “niches” – focusing on specific interests and activities visitors are looking for.

What niches could Georgia fit into?

Now that Syria, Iran and Iraq are not easily accessible Georgia could for example promote archaeological tourism by presenting the antique heritage of the country. Or the country could explicitly target Swiss, German, Austrian or Italian mountaineers and skiers by promoting the Caucasus Mountain extreme sports on Events in the Alps. I would say the strategy has been declared, now tactics should be drafted. We know from statistics that Europeans, Americans and certain Asians are spending more time in our country. This means more money being spent here. And that is what Georgia should aim for in tourism – value, not numbers.

As a visitor to this country I have already realised that it is not so easy to travel to remote regions …

That is exactly the case. This country is very well connected from north to south and from east to west. But if you already have a million visitors in Batumi every year, you can’t attract another million there. So you need to develop new destinations. The attractions are there, but you need to develop the services: roads, places to stay, people who work there.

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Vano Vashakmadze studied physics and – in the 90s – made his hobby his profession and became a guide in the first ski resort in the country. In 2005 he moved on to consulting as a freelance tourism expert and worked with different international organisations and countries. Right now, he works with the project “Economic Security Program” financed by the USAID.

You are talking about developing and accessing remote regions. In this context sustainability is a huge topic in Europe. How is Georgia making sure that the development is sustainable?

Well sustainability and development are contradictory in a way. For many years there was no money in Georgia and after the Soviet Union our government was corrupt, the regulatory framework was very tight. So 20 years ago, under the leadership of President Micheil Saakashvili, Georgia had only one choice: we became a deregulated and liberalized economy. As a result, in 10 years, the state’s budget increased tenfold. That’s a fact.

But just because it is good for the economy doesn’t mean it is good for nature as well …

Yes, but with no money you don’t get to develop anything at all. And some action has been taken already. 10 percent of Georgia’s area is protected state land.

But there are negative examples as well, aren’t there?

Of course. For example, we see problems in Ushguli. The mountain village – very remote – is one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Georgia. The demand is simply too high for such a small village. People have started to build houses or convert existing houses into accommodation. The way they are doing it is endangering the beauty of the site. I think the Government has understood that. But to simply enact a ban on construction is not the solution. You need to provide locals with access to finance and to knowledge – this is lacking.

But if we switch the focus to Batumi neither know-how nor money seem to be lacking.

Batumi is growing very fast. Meanwhile the coastal city has more hotels of known brands than Tbilisi. Batumi has its own problems: limited space for economic growth, booming of the seaside, increasing tourist numbers, the harbour, the oil terminal, the border. And all this must be handled by the government of the autonomous republic with the support of the central government. This is where the know-how is lacking. The city recently approved a masterplan for zone planning, regulating in which areas what kind of new constructions are allowed – on the day it was approved, they infringed it for the first time.

Are you telling me they were bribed?

Of course not, but I’m telling you that there are business immediate incentives. The government has to satisfy a lot of different needs and expectations. But the fact that they are moving in the direction of a zone-plan tells me that the government has understood that regulation in that sector is needed. Up to 10 years ago such an implementation would have been just a lesson learned from somebody. Now it’s time to really implement such regulations and put the zone plan into daily practice.

By Valerie Wacker

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