The number of curious and adventurous tourists – particularly from the EU and North America – arriving in Georgia is growing. They come hungry for the unspoilt nature, unique adventures and life-enriching cultural experiences in a new, relatively-unknown but up-and-coming destination. However, only meeting their needs and expectations will ensure that they leave satisfied.
I have interviewed many foreign tourists as well as the Georgian employees of Tourist Information Centres in various regions of the country to see what these expectations are, and how well they are met by the hosts.
What is so appealing?
Over the last few months, several articles have been published in the press worldwide praising Georgia as an emerging tourism destination and encouraging tourists to come and visit Georgia now. Lonely Planet, National Geographic, BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, CNN, to name a few biggest. There is a sense of urgency that comes from most articles: come right now before it is too late, before it all gets spoilt (ironically, by the very same people who are being encouraged to come now!).
I have analysed all recent articles and there is a number of common themes around nature, culture, adventure, great food and wine, and hospitality of the local people. Each theme is described in more detail in my latest blog. They clearly show what foreign – especially Western – tourists expect from a an emerging destination. However, the experience on the ground proves way too often that these expectations are not very well understood by the local people working in tourism and providing a variety of services, particularly in the rural areas of Georgia.
(Not) understanding the expectations
A very practical publication Operational Guidelines for Community-Based Tourism in South Africa, developed in 2016 for the Department of Tourism of the Republic of South Africa in partnership with the International Labour Organization describes numerous case studies showing that “when communities begin tourism ventures but those involved do not have tourism experience, they can be completely unaware of the expectations of tourists”, and adds that “sometimes, differences in culture can also cause gaps in expectations and service quality, and none more-so than in the difference between tourists’ and a community’s attitude towards time”.
This is also the case in the villages in the Caucasus. In May and June 2016, I conducted a community consultation for the Transcaucasian Trail project in the mountainous region of Svaneti that revealed a great desire by the Svan community to host tourists but also a lack of awareness and knowledge of tourist’s expectations and tourism product development. Those involved don’t have much tourism experience; local people often embark on tourism as they see it as additional (or, more rarely, alternative) source of income, often only in high season, and – something crucial in understanding the expectations of tourists – they never or very rarely travel themselves, and have a different attitude towards time (“prompt” doesn’t really resonate).
When a well-travelled, tech-savvy, experience-hungry, time-pressured and quality-demanding traveller meets his host, there might be a clash, and there are complaints.
Meeting the expectations
Based on several interviews with tourists I conducted last summer in Svaneti, their main motivations to venture to new destinations like Georgia are hiking, trekking, unspoilt nature, wildlife, the uniqueness and the “authentic experience” – that opportunity to see, smell, taste and experience the local nature, culture and cuisine.
But in addition to the need for life-changing experiences through immersion in Georgian nature and culture, there are also more basic needs of tourists once they have arrived (and, consequently, these are the things they mostly complain about if the expectations are not met). According to several employees of the Tourist Information Centres around Georgia I regularly speak to, the foreign tourists want:
- better quality, clean accommodation;
- more public transport options;
- more diverse product offer (more “things to do when it rains”);
- better customer service;
- more food options for vegetarians;
- safer driving by marshrutka drivers;
- no smoking in public, and particularly no smoking in buses and taxis;
- and, last but not least, better Wi-Fi.
The number of curious but demanding tourists in Georgia is growing – but only reducing the gap between their expectations and the quality of service delivery (through trainings, awareness and capacity building for the local communities) will ensure a desirable visitor experience.
Marta Mills is a sustainable tourism specialist on the Caucasus who writes regularly for Travindy on the region’s tourism development. She is currently working as Sustainable Tourism expert for the World Bank project in Georgia to develop sustainable Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) as well as national and regional marketing strategies, and is advising Georgian tourism businesses on sustainability. Her own blog can be found at oneplanetblog.com