The Guesthouse in the Sky
The mountainous region of Tusheti in northeast Georgia is one of the richest protected areas in the Caucasus. 230 species of endemic plants, 120 species of birds, 11 of reptiles, amphibians and fish make this unique ecosystem outstanding for biodiversity. Each of Tusheti villages is a historic monument cling to mountainsides between 1800 and 2200 meters. Fortresses and watching towers hardly changed for centuries, and indigenous culture provides unforgettable experience to the tourists.
- A 5-year business plan developed for the Tusheti national park – one of the Caucasus richest and most diverse protected areas.
- Twenty-five rangers trained to ensure effective biodiversity monitoring and patrolling.
- Around 70 thousand eco-tourists visited Tusheti in 2012 showing almost 500 per cent increase in the last five years.
- A 10-year investment plan developed to ensure US $ 46.4 million from the state budget and donor funds to cover the needs of Georgia’s protected areas.
- A package of legislative changes submitted to the government to allow Georgia’s protected areas to diversify their revenues and increase income.
Environmental and cultural importance did not save Tusheti from economic hardship in the last decades. Electricity supply broke in 1980s and has not been restored ever since. Roads were damaged with poor maintenance cutting off the highlands for seven months a year. Many villages have been abandoned as people left for the planes in search of jobs.
Village Shenaqo lists 7 residents but Elene Gagoidze and her husband Irakli are the only ones who stay all year round. In October, before the roads close with mudflows and snow, the other villagers move down to better connected locations.
In summer Elene runs a small guesthouse that welcomes tourists with the hand-carved furniture and homemade Tushetian food – meat dumplings and sheep cheese. Though not very promising three years ago, this family business is gaining strength following the revival of the Tusheti National Park.
“We stayed here alone winter after winter just to keep our village alive. Now there are more tourists and we hope that things can change for better. There’s no place as beautiful and special as Tusheti,” Elene says.
Georgia’s protected areas have been degrading for years with insufficient funding and poor management. Loss of habitat, excessive use of natural resources, damaged infrastructure and human migration are the main threats faced by Tusheti and the other national parks and nature reserves. Although state funding has increased in the last 4 years, it still covers only 30% of the costs.
In 2007, the country’s government launched the reform to make the system of protected areas more sustainable. UNDP supported this process in cooperation with its national partner – the Agency of Protected Areas, and with funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). UNDP’s efforts aimed at improving the protection of biodiversity while creating economic and social opportunities for local residents.
Tusheti was selected as a pilot site to test new management and financing models that would extend in the future to the country’s other national parks and nature reserves.
By 2011, the protected areas of Tusheti fully reformed the ranger service, biodiversity monitoring and patrolling. Twenty-five rangers were trained and equipped with camera traps and other equipment which allows for collecting and analysing biodiversity data to decide on the needed steps for conservation and protection.
The administrative staff of the protected areas received training in management and financial planning, and public awareness campaigns were launched to engage local communities in the work of the national park.
Tusheti has become the first protected area in Georgia which thoroughly assessed its needs, risks and prospects, and introduced a business plan for the next 5 years. Along with the ecosystem protection measures, such as the biodiversity research and monitoring, the business plan focused on improving infrastructure – roads, electricity, water and sewage systems, and on promoting eco-tourism to increase local employment.
The annual number of tourists has increased almost five times throughout the last five years and made around 70 thousand in 2012.
Thirty-eight guesthouses opened in the villages and a tourist information centre was established in the largest village – Omalo, to provide information and services in cultural and eco-tourism. The centre also serves the guesthouses owners and tourist guides as a resource of information and training. UNDP trained the staff of the Centre and the local tourist associations to help them improve touristic services.
“People need to understand the importance of Tusheti’s natural heritage and see the benefits of engaging in biodiversity protection. Eco-tourism can increase incomes and generate employment. But it should not transform into mass tourism. Otherwise Tusheti may lose its attractiveness,” says Anzor Gogotidze, Head of the Administration of the Tusheti Protected Areas.
UNDP assistance extended to developing a package of legislative changes that will allow Georgia’s protected areas to diversify their revenues and increase income. A 10-year investment plan presented by the Agency of Protected Areas in 2012 shows that $4.6 million a year can be mobilised from the state budget – $ 2.3 million, and donor funds. These resources will be enough to cover the most pressing needs of the protected areas.
Back in Shenaqo, Elene opens her doors to more guests. She believes that Tushetians will come back to their villages as the national park becomes stronger. For people like Elene, the effective system of protected areas is the way to preserve their home and culture, and build a new life in the old place.