4.1. Rural Tourism in Georgia
4.1.1. Evolution and Development of Understanding
The multifaceted nature of the post-1990s Rural Tourism distinguishes it from earlier forms of tourism in Georgia. Today, Rural Tourism is being discussed widely by tour operators and government and nongovernment organizations. The roots of this recent tourism development in rural areas go back to the revival of the old winemaking tradition called qvevri. A qvevri is an ancient Georgian wine vessel that is made from clay and buried in the ground for the fermentation, storage, and aging of wine. This is a unique attraction, and the interest of international visitors to become acquainted with this winemaking tradition “pushed” farmers to participate in tour operators’ programs offering visits to farms.
The definition and understanding of alternative forms of tourism has been discussed since 2006, when a project on the development of Rural Tourism was launched by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Georgia. The project was implemented by the Biological Farmers Association Elkana. It promoted rural tourism as a source of additional income for farmers and rural residents. The project endorsed the establishment of the first Rural Tourism Network in Georgia in 2007. Currently, this network brings together 190 members from different regions [59
]. One hundred and sixty guest houses meet the Elkana criteria for service quality. Since 2008, Elkana has been a member of the European Federation of Rural Tourism (EuroGite).
Elkana, as a pioneer in the development of rural tourism projects in Georgia, describes Rural Tourism as a “tourist service in villages and small towns, which is based on local resources, related to traditional agriculture and cultural and natural values” [59
]. With respect to tourism demand, Rural Tourism was described by Elkana as meeting the need of tourists “to be removed from a noisy, stressful environment, to relax in a calm, non-urban environment, and to enjoy clean air, beautiful sceneries, fresh products, and hospitable hosts” [60
In the subsequent years, rural tourism in Georgia has been understood in a broad sense, and includes nature tourism, agritourism, and food and wine tourism. Given the number of theoretical contributions that deal with the concept of agritourism [61
], we can conclude that “visiting farms” is a more appropriate term in the Georgian context.
Today, seven individual associations in Tbilisi and one government organization in Batumi (Ajara, Western Georgia), promote rural, eco, and wine tourism in Georgia. They provide technical assistance and marketing, and are supported by international projects.
There are no accurate statistics on rural or agritourism in Georgia. However, the proportion of small guesthouses in rural regions, as shown in Figure 5
and Figure 6
, is a good indicator of the relative significance of regional tourism’s development. The percentage of registered accommodation units with five or less rooms in rural areas of Georgia is 43% of the total accommodation and about 11.5% of all tourism beds in rural Georgia [24
The increasing number of small guesthouses (with five rooms or less) is displayed in Figure 7
4.1.2. National Policy Framework for Rural Tourism
Rural Tourism has become an integral part of a wide range of government organizations and their strategic documents. A 10-year plan of the National Tourism Development Strategy of Georgia, adopted in December 2015, focuses on authentic visitor experiences, quality services, public and private sector investment, and better partnerships between government, industry, nongovernmental organizations, and communities. While the strategy refers to nature and cultural conservation and unique authentic visitor experiences, there are no explicit references to alternative forms of tourism, such as rural, agro, or ecotourism. Yet, in 2012, the National Tourism Administration of Georgia (GNTA) began to promote rural and wine tourism by identifying and marking wine routes in the country.
The GNTA, together with local municipalities, promotes the establishment of tourism information centers in the regions. According to experts and the staff of these centers, the cooperation between the GNTA and the local authorities is unstable and less-effective in terms of regional partnership and marketing. Initiatives are emerging to develop Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) to improve partnership and marketing at the regional level, which would be partially funded by public funds (70–80%), while the rest would come from private funds, mainly tourism-related business. The projection for this initiative requires a new legal framework. The Georgian Law on Tourism and Health Resorts from 1997 is outdated and does not reflect the new policy direction.
Rural Tourism in Georgia, as a promising source for the diversification of the rural economy, is widely promoted by the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture (MEPA) [14
]. Under the European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD) ‘A New Approach for Rural Development in Georgia’, since 2015, the Ministry has aimed to modernize agriculture, stimulate new agriculture and non-agriculture initiatives in rural development, and thereby tackle rural poverty in Georgia. The program highlights the involvement of highland and rural residents in the development process and advocates for the establishment of regional partnerships. The concept of sustainable tourism by the Protected Areas Agency at that ministry emphasizes specific options for developing community-based resource management [62
]. The agency follows the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas and the guidelines proposed by the EUROPARC Federation (http://tjs-caucasus.org/?p=1506
). The Forest Agency in the same ministry also considers Ecotourism at the community level to be relevant for the conservation and management of forests.
A specific Mountain Law and a Mountain Development Strategy promote mountain tourism as a sustainable development option [63
]. In addition, the Strategy for Small and Medium Enterprises Development, adopted in 2016, highlights the “Think Small First” principle that has been proposed in the E.U. Small Business Act for Europe, and supports private forms of investment in rural and mountain areas [64
The Association Agreement between the E.U. and Georgia promotes community-based tourism in Georgia and the cooperation of all stakeholders. Article 9 of the Agreement states that Georgia has to maintain “partnership between public, private, and community interests in the field of tourism, with the aim of strengthening the development of a competitive and sustainable tourism industry as a generator of economic growth and empowerment, employment, and international exchange”. In article 330, the “development and promotion of, inter alia, community-based tourism” is mentioned as an important field of economic development [65
4.1.3. International Projects on Rural and Agritourism
The concept of “One Village—One Product”, which was initiated by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), emphasizes tourism and agriculture as meaningful forms of cooperation for rural economic growth. The Austrian Development Agency (ADA) supports sustainable rural and mountain tourism development in Georgia as promising entry points to strengthen economic growth in the country. The project “Sustainable Mountain Tourism and Organic Agriculture”, initiated in 2018, aims to reduce poverty and exclusion by promoting new opportunities for income generation in sustainable mountain tourism and organic farming. The German and Swedish development agencies (German Society for International Cooperation and Swedish International Development Agency) in Georgia see Rural Tourism as an effective tool for poverty alleviation, SME development, gender equality, and environment protection. Agritourism is supported by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) under the Country Programming Framework for Georgia 2016–2020, which focuses on regional and sectorial value chain development [66
]. Further, the USAID “Zrda” project (2016–2020) supports the development of new niche tourism products and tourism destinations. It advocates for the cooperation of regional public and private sectors through introducing a regional development model.
4.2. Actors’ Views on Rural Tourism and Regional Development
The interviews with project managers and experts reflect different perspectives and perceptions of Rural Tourism development, generally recognizing its pivotal role as a catalyst for the conservation of nature and culture, the revival of rural areas, the valorization of traditional products, and the development of communities. Despite different perspectives and perceptions of the role of rural tourism in development processes, the projects have much in common in the practice of project development, in particular, in the integration of the local community into planning and implementation processes. Local actors need increased awareness about the role and importance of their knowledge and motivation in community development. Project managers also emphasized that the community-based rural tourism development models proposed by Western experts and development agencies initially disregarded local non-Western perspectives and knowledge. Methodological approaches that were successfully developed in other countries did not always prove to be suitable for Georgia due to different social structures and traditions of governance.
There are only a few successful community-based rural tourism organizations, mostly for the national parks of Georgia. Most of the projects face problems due to poor communication and trust between community members. The success of the Association of Friends of Protected Areas of Tusheti is the result of a long-lasting process of community mobilization and empowerment. The participatory development approaches, facilitated by the administration of the national parks and agencies of nature conservation, considered the process that the community had to go through to embrace tourism as a tool of sustainable development and increased efforts to build capacity and network. Today, the Association of Friends of Protected Areas of Tusheti is a local strategic partner of the government, nongovernment organizations, and international development agencies. It contributes to the protection and restoration of cultural landscapes in mountainous areas of Tusheti, where an old, unique architecture and cultural landscapes are the main attractions for visitors (Figure 8
It is clear that environmental organizations, such as WWF, Nacres, the Georgian Ecotourism Association, and the Caucasus Environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Network (CENN), recognize tourism as a tool for communicating with local people, for generating income, and for managing and conserving natural resources and the environment. They have supported the concept of community-based tourism and facilitated local activities around protected areas by introducing the model of Regional Action Groups (RAGs), where the key partners are the locally established Friends’ Association of National Parks, the community, service suppliers, and the local municipality.
RAGs are similar to the concept of Local Action Groups (LAGs), as introduced since 2015 by the E.U.-funded ENPARD program “A New Approach for Rural Development in Georgia”. Studies on how the form of cooperatives is beneficial to rural tourism entrepreneurs have not yet been conducted, and ENPARD projects currently summarize the work on agriculture activities and rural cooperatives.
As the project leaders noted, the most sensible benefit of using RAG or LAG approaches is an increased sense of “problem ownership” among community members, which is crucial for locals’ motivation and empowerment [67
], as well as a sense of collectivism and cooperation and a shared vision of territorial development. Thus, cooperative behavior contributes to the development of both individual businesses and the whole territory.
Nongovernment organizations, such as the Biological Farmers Association Elkana, the Ecotourism Association, or the Wine Tourism Association, implement projects to meet rural tourism development objectives, such as the valorization of traditional products and rural diversity through tourism and the creation of links between organic product chains and tourism. Most associations depend on external funds and projects, which, unfortunately, often remain fragmented and unstable. According to project leaders, initiatives are only successful as long as external experts manage them, and the community has difficulty in becoming responsible and accountable beyond the project’s lifetime.
Cooperation between associations and government institutions is essential for sustainable development. The success of the valorization of qvevri wine in Georgia, which started a “new wave” of rural and tourism activities in Georgia and the promotion of “Marani Wine Tours”, is a result of mutual cooperation between the government and private and nongovernment agencies. “Marani” means wine cellar in the Georgian language (Figure 9
). Farmers gained access to the organic market by producing unique (forgotten) varieties of wine. This was quite challenging for them, especially after the Russian embargo, when wine factories had stopped buying grapes from farmers. As a reaction, farmers began to look for new ways and markets to sell their grapes. It stimulated cooperation between local farmers, the gastronomy sector, and shops in urban areas, and induced farmers to restore a forgotten winemaking tradition, which, in 2013, was recognized by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an intangible cultural heritage. Qvevri wine was initially facilitated by the Biological Farming Association, promoted by the Georgian National Wine Agency, and marketed by the Georgian Wine Association (GWA). The first international symposium of Georgian qvevri Wine 2012 was initiated by the GWA tour operators’ associations, and was followed by the Wine Tourism Conference 2016 in Tbilisi, which was organized by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
4.3. Rural Tourism Entrepreneurs and Tourism Products
The main “drivers” of Georgian rural tourism are urban “entrepreneurs”. Very often, they combine an investment with a second home with the development of small or medium-sized tourism businesses. Most of these houses have four to eight rooms for tourists. Many young entrepreneurs leave the city and move to the countryside, or they just spend the summer time in villages for receiving tourists. They combine hospitality with recreational and farm activities, provide tourists with traditional food and wine, and offer horse riding or cycling tours.
Rural tourism entrepreneurs typically use internet platforms, such as booking.com or Airbnb, for marketing. Some of them are members of national tourism and farmers’ associations. The rates for a bed/night, including breakfast, vary between 40 and 220 Gel (15 to 75 EUR). The manager of the Elkana rural tourism network noted that women run 55% of the guesthouses. She has also emphasized that guesthouses run by women tend to be successful, and the business enhances the role of women in rural society. Starting a guesthouse business results in a boom in Georgia; however, it creates problems when owners make investments intuitively, without proper knowledge, planning, and marketing research. Service price calculation is still a challenge for many guesthouse owners. They only see the rates that are offered in the market but poorly understand how they are created. Together with the growing competition in this sector, this can lead to economic failure or even bankruptcy.
In mountainous regions, farms with limited agricultural resources have become more tourism-dependent. They are focused on engaging with the tourism business to generate income apart from agriculture. Therefore, tourism and agriculture are seen by them as alternative activities and competing economic activities, rather than as complementary activities that can lead to improved synergies and increased income on both sides [10
International visitors are interested in nature-based activities, particularly in high mountain areas, as well as in culture and adventure tourism activities. Trips based on farm and family-run guesthouses have become very popular. However, most hosts supply only a bed and breakfast service and lack innovation, such as offering active experiences as well as seasonal and local dishes. Due to heating problems, most business only operate in the summer season, except for the few that are located close to ski resorts.