SOCIETY
Mountaineer and pioneer: Nick Erkomaishvili
27 September, 2019
In 1989 Nick Erkomaishvili and some friends agreed to guide a group of Swiss climbers to Mount Kazbek. This encounter led them to become the first Georgian tour operators. And they founded the one and only Georgian Mountain Guide School. Nick Erkomaishvili is not so often in Tbilisi. The 48-year-old mountaineer prefers natural fresh air to the cool breeze of the air-conditioning system in his office near the old town. 

How a Swiss approach got to Georgian Mountains

When he was
young, he was part of the national Soviet team of mountain climbers. “Somehow famous, I suppose”, says the modest man. Maybe that was one of the reasons why he and some of his friends were allowed to leave the Soviet Union for a visit to Switzerland. They were invited one year after they had taken a Swiss mountain guide and his group of climbers to Mount Kazbek and Elbrus.

When they arrived in the Alps in 1990, the young Soviet citizens were impressed by the Swiss: “We learned how serious this stuff is”, as Erkomaishvili – now President of the Georgian Mountain Guides Association – puts it. The Swiss used similar techniques, but had a total different approach to organizing mountain tours. “We knew immediately that we wanted to export this approach to Georgia.”

The first at an international travel fair

Three years later – the Soviet Union had collapsed – they founded the Georgian Mountain Guide School in Gudauri. At the beginning they taught children skiing, climbing and environmental protection. Today they offer up to three years training for future mountain guides, but also for other disciplines in adventure tourism. “And after they finish, they all have full schedules. In high season I even have some difficulty finding a mountain guide for a group of tourists”, explains Erkomaishvili. He hopes that by next year, Georgia will become a member of the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association). “The NATO of Mountain Guides”, as he puts it.

Even if the School was registered very early on as a state school, there is no support. “But a lot of voluntary work.” So Nick and his friends had to earn their money in other ways. They simply continued to guide travellers in the mountains – even during the civil war. In 1994 – despite the state crisis back home – they went to an international travel fair in Europe for the first time: “We were the only ones from the Caucasus.” And this was to remain like this for quite some time.

Travellers do not come from God


“We have the saying in Georgia that guests are sent by God”, explains Erkomaishvili, “so when we started for example going to the Tusheti region for example, nobody wanted to take money for their services.” Building something up in tourism also meant acquainting people with a new business model. “Meanwhile, for many of the remote regions in Georgia tourism became the most important source of income.”

And tourism did not just become important for the rural areas. Tourism is thriving. It is one of the most important and fastest growing economical branches of the economy in Georgia. Erkomaishvili has experienced three boom moments: in the late 1990s when the World Bank and other investors put money into the creation of new national parks; in 2004, when the state started promoting Georgia actively abroad; and in the past five years, when the number of international tourists grew on average by 10 per cent every year (and nearly as much as 18 per cent from 2016 to 2017), as the Georgian national tourist administration has reported.

“Georgia shouldn’t aim to attract the masses”

But Erkomaishvili does not agree with the state’s priorities. He sees Georgia aiming to attract the masses from Russia and the Muslim countries nearby, but he would prefer to attract more tourists from Europe and northern America. “These tourists seek quality, which is the better way for tourism and which is better for the country as well.” For example, Erkomaishvili’s business didn’t feel the current ban on flights Russia has imposed on Georgia. Russians simply aren’t its customer target group. Furthermore, Erkomaishvili talks about the wine embargo that Russia imposed on Georgia in 2006: “This actually helped the industry, because the producers had to increase their quality. Now Georgian wine is exported all over the world.”

“The biggest enemy of tourism are infrastructural projects”

Nowadays Nick Erkomanishvilis and his partners are presiding over the “Georgian Hospitality Group”. The holding contains seven enterprises that work in different fields: Culture, Archeology, Adventure and even conferences and business trips. About 60 people work for them. “During high season about 270 people get their revenue from our business”, he estimates.

What are his future goals? “I want everybody to be happy: The tourists, the locals and nature itself”, he says and talks about his latest project: Fighting the plans of the government to build a highway through the Khada Valley. “The most dangerous enemy of tourism at the moment are several projects which our government is planning to implement”, Nick Erkomanishvili says. He seems genuinely afraid for the natural beauty of Georgia.

By: Valérie Wacker

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