Czech expert helps Georgia balance landscape protection and tourism

Photo: Jiří Flousek

As an expert on protected landscape management, Michal Hošek is used to working in breathtakingly beautiful environments. However when he was sent to northern Georgia in 2012 he had no idea of the ties that would bind him to its pristine nature and warmhearted people. He recently visited Radio Prague’s studio to talk about his work in Georgia, his love for the country and the challenges of developing a tourist infrastructure in a country still largely undiscovered.

Photo: Jiří Flousek

“I was asked by the Czech Development Agency to cooperate on a project in the Tusheti protected area –which is divided into three categories National Park, State Nature Reserve and Protected Landscape. The reason I was asked is that I have been active in the field of nature conservation for a long time at the EU level, not just in member states, but in EU candidate countries and I am especially focused on protected landscapes.”

So you are actually helping not only to protect, but to open up these areas to tourists?

“Not just to open up but to set limits for the sustainable development of tourism infrastructure. Because for countries like Georgia, that are still largely unexplored, tourism is the only income for the local communities. On the other hand it can be a threat, because if you have a lot of tourists, if you open up a protected area too much, then you can damage it a lot and that damage can be irreversible.”

What kind of tourists go to Georgia?

Photo: Jiří Flousek
“I will not count the locals because the population in Georgia is just 3.5 million people and they do not travel a lot because they are still quite poor. There are a lot of Russian tourists because Georgia is a former part of the Soviet bloc and they like the country. For them it is something like California because they do not have many places with a nice and warm sea as you find in Georgia. This is a place that combines sub-tropic areas near to the sea-shore on the Black Sea together with the Caucasus Mountains, so you can visit two such very different places within one or two hours. And then there are a lot of tourists from Europe, from the US, and from Israel. ”

Are you saying that there are already developed tourist facilities in these areas or are these adventurous people who just set out with a backpack?

“Mostly they are adventurous people looking for unexplored destinations and now there are even more opportunities because of the new local companies offering cheap flight tickets to the country. But just imagine that you have a population of 3.5 million people, and last year we had 8.5 million tourists. Next year we expect 10 million. The problem is that tourism infrastructure practically does not exist, or only in given areas. It is not structured. Politicians and local communities have big expectations regarding the country’s future income from the tourist industry but they have no clear idea as to how many tourists will come, what they will demand and what this means in terms of road infrastructure, the electricity grid etc.”

Apart from the beautiful nature, what is there to see?

“Definitely culture, because Georgia has a rich cultural heritage. They have preserved their language which is very special –there is no relation to other languages. It is an Orthodox Church country which is also special, because together with Armenia it is like an island of Christianity in the region. There is the Georgian cuisine and the traditions that they keep. You can see defense towers that were used by communities and villages in the summer season, because that is when it was possible for invaders to cross the mountains from Dagestan, Chechnya and attack them. In the winter months the Tushetis were safe.”

You probably get to see a lot of farmers and shepherds?

“Yes, but they are not always local farmers. There are a lot of sheep in the area, maybe more than 100,000 and those shepherds are not just from Georgia, but also from Azerbaijan. They spend the whole summer season up in the mountains, not just in Tusheti, but also in other parts of Georgia and then they go back to the lowlands -400 kms south-east where they spend the winter, because conditions in the winter in Tusheti are extremely harsh.”

The Czech Republic is famous for its network of marked tourist trails and you helped introduce something similar in Tusheti, did you not?

“That’s right, we introduced a system of market trails in Tusheti, that is similar to what we have in the Czech Republic.”

So soon tourists will be able to use those trails?

“They already exist. And besides that we have published a guidebook for tourists and a map that is available on the Internet. People can download it. We even printed thousands of copies to distribute among tourists – setting up an information point on the road. It is quite easy to catch every tourist there because this is the only road to the area. At the beginning of the project there was no real tourism infrastructure, no marked trails, just a very simple map. So what we did, with the help of Czech and local volunteers, was we went through the whole area, identified the best trails, then we marked them, which took two or three years, and now it is up to the local communities to maintain them, because, as you can imagine, after two or three years those marks need to be repainted and checked, otherwise they will be lost.”

Photo: Jiří Flousek
So in this guidebook you tell people that what they can see, which monuments to visit, what’s of interest and where they can get good food?

“We recommend where to go, where they can get accommodation quite easily, we identify villages that have guesthouses, the information about cuisine is quite general because that is a service you will find everywhere.”

What are your main concerns in opening up the area to tourists?

“Well, one advantage of the area is that it is hard to access. That presents a natural limit. But still, you need to establish a basic infrastructure and set down some rules. But for that you need an effective administration, people who speak English, who will compile a set of rules and post them somewhere for tourists. Let me give you an example. In Tusheti there are a lot of “sacred” places which women are not allowed to visit. The locals believe that if this unwritten rule is broken it will bring down a disaster upon them – be it a storm, a flood or something like that. The problem is that tourists have no way of learning about this in order to respect their traditions.”

You said that you work with volunteers. Are these volunteers from the Czech Republic? Are there people from Europe?

“They are mainly from the Czech Republic.”

What kind of work do they do? Are they students?

“They are students, but also middle-aged people who want to help and experience something out-of-the-ordinary. These volunteers are organized by my friend and colleague, who is also the author of the tourist guidebook, and they started with the reconstruction of some defense towers. And then when we launched the nature protection project they started helping us as well and we established very close cooperation. So in the end we had about 20 to 25 people helping us establish this tourist infrastructure project. As an expert team we have just six people so our capacity is limited.”

What other projects is the Czech Development Agency supporting in Georgia?

“Georgia is on the Czech Republic’s list of five priority countries for development aid so up until last year the Czech Development Agency had projects in many different places around the country. But due to the limited budget they decided to now focus on one area –the Aragvi area in which we are now helping to establish a protected landscape.

“The difference is that when we talk about a protected landscape in Europe or the Czech Republic people recognize it as a nature conservation area. This is not so in Georgia. In Georgia this is a tool that helps give power to local communities. Georgia is quite a centralized country and the majority of the power is in the hands of state administration bodies, for instance national parks, nature reserves are totally managed by the state. The protected landscape –if it is established – is managed by the local municipality. And they welcome that –because they can set their own rules how they can manage forests, use the timber and so on.”

Photo: Jiří Flousek
Do they do it well?

“They do it well, because they use the old, traditional ways of management. They are definitely better managers than the central bodies, as we know all too well from our own experience under communism. So it is one of my tasks and goals to help local communities in this respect. So what we do there is mainly governance, development of governance systems, to be precise, and the Czech Development Agency has approved a sum of close to one million euros that will be spent on the area in the next three years, to support local communities, farmers, build infrastructure, electricity supplies, help open guesthouses, support local products such as cheese, and so on. All this is to improve life there and prevent the depopulation of the area.”

Michal, you have worked in the country for a long time and go there often. It must have grown close to your heart. What kind of country is it –for someone who can see under the surface?

“I have been working there since 2012, I visit it many times a year and I have fallen in love with the country. It is very diverse. My last visit took me to the far south-west of the country near the Turkish border – and life there is totally different from that near the border with Azerbaijan – so the country is rich in its diversity not just in terms of the nature, but in terms of the people and customs. Even after years of working there I am still scratching the surface. The people are open and you get to know the local customs, but you are still a foreigner and what helps is to have friends there.

“I would recommend not travelling around the country alone. It is worth investing in a good guide, in one of the locals who will take you around and give you greater insight into the country. What is specific is that one quarter of the country is occupied by Russia – still. We don’t talk much about it, because we talk about Ukraine, but that is a fact. And it is not just because of the war in Aphasia in the 1990s, it is because of the more recent conflict from 2008 when Russia started to occupy South Ossetia which is a central place in Georgia. It is not something we are used to seeing in Europe –if you drive along the highway from east to west you are just 400 meters from the area occupied by Russians.

“They have a very specific relationship because, on the one hand, Russia is an important market for Georgia and Russian tourists spend a lot of money in the country, on the other – they are enemies, because they are occupying the country. These things are not always easy to understand, if you do not know much about the region.”

What cultural differences struck you most when you first came to the country?

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“Time is a totally different value for them. They have much more time than we have. So they are more relaxed, in a certain sense. It is also caused by the climate conditions and the fact that they have a totally different way of life. The living standard is also very different. In Tbilisi you can find a significant group of rich people but, on the other hand, you see villages of 150 people who altogether have the same amount of money as your salary here in the Czech Republic. They live in very poor conditions and rely on their own produce. They often spend the whole summer up in the mountains because it is very cheap. So it is not just a question of traditions, but also money. This has been changing in the last few years because there are a lot of international donors helping the country. However this has its dark side too because with money coming from abroad the central leadership sometimes shirks its responsibilities in this respect.”

There is probably a strict division of male and female roles, is there not?

“If you experience a typical dinner in the country you will be surprised by the hospitality and then struck by the fact that there are just men around the table – the women are serving them. But if you spend a longer time with the community you will realize that the women are even stronger than the men, because they keep the family together, they preserve the customs and I personally know a lot of very strong women who are leaders in Georgia – even their current president is a woman. I would say the country is well-managed by strong women. At first glance you do not see it, but if you go deeper under the surface you recognize that this is so.”

What about young people? Are they willing to preserve the traditions or are they heading for the big cities and for the world?

“They are doing both. But I cooperate with a very specific group of people, young nature conservationists who are studying at universities and interested in helping local communities and improving the country. The local coordinator, a young guy who graduated from university last year has been building an education centre for young people in his area. In general the young generation is able to distinguish what is good and what is bad in the country’s traditions.

"What is a big problem in Georgia is alcoholism. They drink a lot, especially men, which is also why women have a strong position there and are trying to overcome this problem. Young people do not drink so much, some even hate it. They say we like a lot of our traditions, we like the country as it is, but we do not follow traditions that are damaging to us. But they are also abandoning some things –like their knowledge of Russian. We did the same after the fall of communism, because we were free and we turned to the West. But if you look at the map of that region in the majority of the surrounding countries they speak Russian –it is a common language, like English here. So when I talk to them I say – please keep your Russian, because a combination of Russian and English is excellent for you. Because Georgia is a small country, with a small population, nobody will learn your language.”

Photo: Jiří Flousek
Is there anything from their culture, their values and attitude that enriched you, that you would like to bring into your own life?

“I am inspired by people from the mountains who spend long periods of time living in isolation up there by themselves. They are very strong people. They know what is happening in the world, they watch television and go on the Internet. But they have a very strong sense of what is important in their lives and what is not important and they are able to decide very sensibly what they want to do with their life – and that is very inspiring. The younger generation – they have the same problems as we do, they are on their mobile phones for many hours a day, they expect to be entertained most of the time and so on. So if you want to be enriched, I would recommend talking to some of the older people in Georgia.”