Standing in a cellar at the bottom of her house, Izolda Dvali holds a glass of a ruby red Khvanchkara wine against the light, toasting to a good season. “Hope we have lots of visitors this year. Here in Racha we are a little bit off the road, you see,” – she explains.
The mountainous Racha region in west Georgia is as stunningly beautiful as it is poor. During the last two decades, half of its inhabitants abandoned their homes in search of work and better life. More than third of the region’s remaining population is aged 65 and older. A place renowned for its natural beauty and rare varieties of wine slid slowly into decay. Emerging rural tourism is a new hope to accelerate local economy and create economic and employment opportunities.
“In Georgia, we have a saying that a guest is a divine gift,” – says Izolda, referring to a well-kept custom of hospitality that makes Georgians natural hosts. “If tourism pulled Racha out of poverty and brought local people back to their land, it would make a truly divine intervention,“ – she concludes.
Izolda’s tiny guesthouse is one of many family hotels popping up around Racha’s countryside these days as the region attracts more travellers with a taste for authentic experiences, unspoiled landscapes, delicious food and great wines.
“See, all these vineyards are new,” – Izolda points out at the nearby hills. “They were planted a year or two ago. Before, the land was abandoned because there was no point in cultivating it. Local people wouldn’t pay for wine enough for you to make the income.” Visitors, on the other hand, happily give EUR 10 for a bottle of her unique Khvanchkara.
In recent years, Georgia re-emerged as a holiday destination, with the number of international arrivals hitting the record of 7.9 million in 2017 and growing. Tourism contributes nearly 10 per cent to the national GDP, though meeting increasing demands of visitors is a big challenge for a country which is still struggling to rebuild its economy and infrastructure. Tourists have started to appear in remote areas like Racha too, but the region has a lot to catch up with.
“You may have the best wine in your cellar and striking landscapes all around, but, first, the tourists need to get to know about you, and, on the other hand, you need to learn how to host them,” – argues another Khvanchkara producer, Naniko Nemsitsveradze. She returned to Racha after thirty years living in the capitol Tbilisi, and now is trying to transform the old household into a small business.
Both women were among fifteen family hotel owners from Racha and neighbouring regions to take a course in basic marketing skills and standards of hospitality services, provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through a Switzerland and Austria-supported project that assists regional and local development in Georgia.
“When I decided to come back here and open a hostel, I had no idea how to run this business. This course gave me a simple, but valuable, knowledge on how to meet visitors’ demands and operate a profile on the popular online booking sites. And the effect is evident – twice more guests than two years ago and an income that allows me to live,” – says Naniko.
Nicole Faulks from UK stays at a guesthouse in Ambrolauri. The place is owned by Nato Silagadze, another participant of the hospitality training. Nato says the knowledge she acquired about the rules of serving the table made her feasts famous and brought many guests who came to her place to dine. While Nato serves coffee, Nicole shares her ideas on what could be done to direct the flow of visitors to Racha.
“The wine route is fabulous. Each village has its own unique variety of grape. There is so much to discover around – ancient ruins, medieval watchtowers, lakes and waterfalls hidden in the mountains. But the region is not on the tourists’ map – quite literally, hikes and places to see are not included into the online maps and this is the first thing people do these days – download the map,” she points out.
Zviad Mkheidze, the mayor of Racha’s central town Ambrolauri, claims tourism development is the vital priority for his municipality. “Up in the mountains, whole villages stay empty. Tourism is our only chance to revert this process. Local municipalities could have done more to support tourism development if we had more powers and resources,” he stresses.
Georgia indeed is reforming its local self-governance aiming to decentralise decision-making and increase financial resources of the regional and local authorities. An ambitious plan for the coming 10 years is to increase the consolidated financial resource of the municipalities to at least 7% of the country’s GDP. The Danish Government will be assisting Georgia to succeed in this challenging task through a US$ 4 million UNDP-managed project. The initiative will help municipalities to provide quality services for local communities and will support grass-root initiatives linked with the regional and municipal strategic goals – in case of Racha, with tourism development.
“I dream about Racha where every house will be filled with children’s laughter again,” – confesses Izolda Dvali. She hopes that the wine route will not only draw visitors but will bring her neighbours back home.