Svaneti, A Mountain Inauguration

As the first tourists to take advantage of the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center (SMTC), we planned our arrival in the town of Mestia to coincide with the organization’s inaugural party. Because of our exceptionally long ride from Zugdidi to Mestia, we barely arrived in time for the opening speeches, including one which singled us out and unexpectedly turned the local crowd’s attention to us.

Man with a Guitar - Svaneti, Georgia
A Georgian song of ages. Mestia, Svaneti

At the conclusion of the ceremony, several men huddled close and sang a cathedral worthy chant-like melody in Georgian that marked the beginning of the real festivities. The ensemble included three men from London, making this a truly international event. The quality of their vocals were so authentic, however, that locals were as surprised as they were impressed.

Supra: A Georgian Feast

No event could be classified as Georgian (or Svan) without astronomical amounts of food, however. As guests found their seats, picnic tables were set for a serious Georgian Supra (meal). Sprawling plates of mint and cheese rolls, eggplant salad, meat, herbs, cheese corn bread, and cheese mashed potatoes were piled atop one another and vied for scarce table space.

A Georgian Tamada and Endless Toasts

The only thing in shorter supply: dead air. Georgia’s tamada (toastmaster) tradition was in full swing before the first forkful as toastmasters and deputy toastmasters sprang up at each table. More difficult than understanding the point of each toast (in Svan or Georgian, of course) was figuring which of the four glasses of various liquors and wines we should consume with each toast.

Warm Welcome - Svaneti, Georgia
Audrey makes a new friend at the opening party in Mestia.

As alcohol flowed indiscriminately, it was abundantly clear that it didn’t matter. Toasts to women, family, Svaneti, community, and toasts to those who lost their lives in the mountains bounced off one another as toastmasters, deputies, officials, and local drunks spun long yarns.

Halfway through the eighteenth toast, one of the British singers turned around to us and said, “Uh, this one’s for the two of you, by the way.” We looked around; glasses were lifted to us, the first tourists of the new center and the symbol of a generation of independent travelers that the region hopes to embrace.

More on the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center

After the euphoria of the opening party subsided, we asked a Tbilisi-based representative of one of the founding partners, the German organization Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), to answer some questions about the goals and work of the new center.

How SMTC Came About

SMTC came together through the collaboration of three organizations – FES, Swiss Development and Cooperation Office in the South Caucasus (SDC) and the Georgian Union of Mountain Activists (GUMA). SDC paid for the physical renovation of the center while FES supports the center’s staff, internal furnishings and a tourism development program. The head of the center, Zaur Chartolani, is well-known and well-respected in Svaneti. Every time we mentioned his name, people would nod in approval.

In an effort to develop a tourist infrastructure throughout the region, the tourism development program plans to train host families and guides, teach basic English skills, mark existing and new hiking routes, and print maps and publications. For example, when we met our guide in the village of Mulahi, Zaur passed on a stack of Georgian-English mountain-guide phrase books for distribution to young guides for improvement of their language skills.

Direct Contact with Svaneti

SMTC helps tourists make direct contact with local Svan service providers rather than forcing them to go through a tour operator or other intermediary. This benefits all direct participants: the local provider gets paid directly and the tourist gets direct contact and can customize their path through the region.

Sunset at Svaneti - Svaneti, Georgia
A Svaneti sunset, Mestia.

This last point really appealed to us. We were happier putting money directly into the hands of the village home-stay families than to a tour operator in Tbilisi. We also preferred how the center is encouraging tourists to get out of the main tourist village of Mestia in order to see other villages in Svaneti (Mulahi, Adishi, Kala, Iprari). The benefit here is two-pronged: tourism income is more widely distributed to villagers and the tourist is afforded a closer look and deeper understanding of the region and its people. Most organized tours nowadays only include Mestia and Ushguli. For us, the villages, scenery and life between those bookends tell the real story and provided the highlights of our week there.

Goals and Markers of Success

The long-term goal of SMTC is to raise income levels of the local population through tourism development. Host families, guides, interpreters, rescue teams, drivers and vendors are all needed when there is a healthy tourism sector. Tourism is not a panacea though. Svaneti’s tourism season lasts only a few months of the year (May – September) when the roads are passable.

When we asked what the indicators of success might be, the response was “a large number of satisfied tourists and local population.” There are enough reasons to bring people to Svaneti – natural beauty, hiking, people, culture – but the region needs to make it easier for tourists to come and to stay. This region once had a flourishing tourism infrastructure during the Soviet era, but it quickly collapsed after the break-up. Sustainable tourism development needs the buy-in of the local population. In order to get their buy-in, locals will need to believe that they will benefit now and more importantly in the long-term.

Sustainability of SMTC

FES plans to support the development of the center for two more years. We have seen many tourism development programs die when the foreign funding tap shuts off, so we asked what SMTC’s long-term funding strategy is. At the moment, this is uncertain. FES is currently working through some scenarios in order to make SMTC independent of external subsidies and funding. It is likely that the center would need to introduce service fees for making arrangements and bookings. Even with service fees, additional funding will still likely be needed for some time until tourist numbers increase dramatically.

Contacts for Svaneti Trekking and Mountaineering:

If you are planning a trip to Svaneti, we recommend the services of SMTC. To get started, check out their website – www.svanetitrekking.ge

For direct contact with SMTC, call the Head of the center, Zaur Chartolani, at +995 99 419353 (speaks Russian) or Shorena Gvarliani at +995 95 358049 (speaks English). Email: svaneti_trekking_ge [at] yahoo.com

If you are in Mestia, SMTC is located on a hill up from the road leading to Zugdidi (before getting to the main square). Look for the new brown roof with a crumbling Svan tower next to it. Ask around if you have trouble finding it.

Once you find the office, Zaur and Shorena will be happy to show you trekking maps, tell you about home stays, and help make arrangements. Zaur even managed to sort out our guide and village home-stays during the center’s inaugural party!

Svaneti trekking and homestay costs:

  • Home-stays outside Mestia: 35 Lari/person (including all meals)
  • Home-stays in Mestia: 35-45 Lari/person (including all meals)
  • Trekking guide: 50 Lari/day (English speaking guides also available upon request)
  • Transport from Ushguli to Mestia: 50-100 Lari
  • Transport from Tbilisi to Mestia: 25 Lari from Tbilisi (marshrutka), 15-20 Lari from Zugdidi (jeep).

We thank Ia Tikanadze and Guenther Fichtner from FES for putting us in touch with SMTC, inviting us to the SMTC inaugural party, answering our many questions, and helping to make our time in Svaneti a highlight of our travels in Georgia.

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