The summer tourist season has started, and the South Caucasus is now surely and truly on the global tourist trail. Millions of visitors are expected in the region this year, giving Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia a truly cosmopolitan air. Tourism is good for the region in many ways, but there is a cost too, and governments should not be complacent, writes Dennis Sammut in this week's Monday Commentary.
The South Caucasus was a popular holiday destination for internal tourism in the USSR. A holiday on Georgia's Black Sea cost was a priced perk for the communist nomenklatura and other elite institutions. The chaos following the collapse of the USSR, the costly conflicts that engulfed the region in the 1990s, and lack of new investments, all but destroyed the tourist industry. It is now back with a vengeance. Investment has been coming in - mostly private in Armenia and Georgia, mostly state in Azerbaijan - and so have the tourists. All three countries have plenty of history, culture and natural beauty to attract visitors.
The region will see millions of visitors this year. Until recently tourists to the region came mainly from other post Soviet countries - with diaspora Armenians and Iranians constituting the other large constituency. But that is changing too. Visitors from the Gulf can now be seen in every corner of the region, with many Gulf airlines big and small now offering direct flights to all the three countries. There are also plenty of visitors from Eastern and Central Europe, and of course, Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians keep coming in larger numbers. Beyond that the Western Europeans, Americans, Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are also discovering the region, even if not yet on a mass scale. As a result the region is all of a sudden taking a distinctly cosmopolitan air.
Tourism has many benefits for the South Caucasus. Economically it is an important source of government revenue and contributes to a healthy balance of payments. It is attracting substantial foreign investments, and generating important foreign currency earnings. In Georgia its role in the economy is already substantial and it has the potential of becoming the most important pillar. In Armenia, tourists used to come mainly from the diaspora. Now they also come from everywhere. The new government is realizing its potential. In Azerbaijan serious government investment in tourist infrastructure unfortunately coincided with a toughening of the visa regime for visitors. That has now changed, and citizens of many countries can now travel to Azerbaijan either visa free or through a simplified system, including a fast and reliable on line application process through the ASAN service.
A positive characteristic of the tourist industry is its ability to trickle down its economic benefits to all levels of the economically active part of society. Tourists move around and spend money buying goods and services, and even if they arrive on organized packages, their spending trickles down as they shop, eat, and travel whilst in the country. This means that many Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have not as yet benefited from the transition to the free market brought about by the collapse of the USSR, are for the first time doing so. This has both economic and political significance.
Tourism also has an important positive societal impact. The Caucasus region was for a long time isolated from the rest of the world. This resulted in a certain amount of particularism and xenophobia to which the people of the region do not admit, but which outsiders often notice. Exposure to the world through visitors from many countries will also have a long term positive impact in this regard too.
Of course, this does not come without a cost. As often happens, the environment is paying a heavy price for the tourist industry as hotels sprout out of previously idyllic settings. Some also see a social cost, as communities are absorbed in tourist enclaves, often losing much of their identity. Not enough has been done in the region to understand the problems and mitigate the damage.
The governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, have important challenges ahead if they are to reap the full benefit of the tourist industry. First they still need to do serious work to improve the product. The new infrastructure, particularly in Azerbaijan and Georgia is an important step forward - but not yet enough. In Armenia the challenge is even bigger. Directly related is the issue of transport infrastructure. Roads, airports, train connections and even municipal transport are not ready for the sort of tourist numbers the region hopes for in the coming years.
There is then the issue of staff and their training. Here the problem is urgent and substantial. There is in the region lack of proper training institutions for the tourism industry. The region cries for a world class tourism and catering university or training college. In the meantime, hotels, restaurants and tourist outlets improvise, with staff at all levels, even if enthusiastic, often falling way down the mark. The Georgian government particularly needs to put this at the top of their agenda, preferably through a joint venture with a foreign government or institution. Until this happens, service will remain well below world standards.
Governments must also be active in ensuring quality control and health and safety issues are of a high standard. Here again, as some recent incidents have shown, the situation is far from ideal.
Finally, governments must also be pro active in planning and coordinating the industry - to ensure a good tourist mix, and to as much as possible insulate the industry from massive seasonal fluctuations.
In an ideal situation, the three governments should be co-operating on developing their tourist product together. Visitors who come to one country often want to visit the other two - until they realize how tricky this can be. It is important to plan for such eventuality.
In the South Caucasus, governments and citizens alike are already realizing the great benefit tourism can bring, but complacency is a big danger. Tourism can be a volatile industry. It requires peace, security and safety. The three governments need to factor the impact on tourism in every decision they now take. Not doing so my mean that what has come quickly can go quickly, leaving many of their citizens economically worse off, and politically angry.
source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). His Monday Commentary is published weekly on commonspace.eu. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Photo: Tourists in Georgia (archive picture).