Having work experience in sustainable and eco-tourism in their respective homelands of Germany and Estonia, Margarete (Greta) Hartmannsberger, 28, and Meriliis (Liis) Kotkas, 23, have become the latest members of a dedicated team developing the tourist infrastructure in Georgia’s Tusheti National Park. The pair answered a call for volunteers posted by the Tusheti Protected Areas Administration on the website of GLEN – the Global Education Network of Young Europeans – which advertises a wide range of volunteer and internship opportunities across Europe, Asia and Africa.
“I’ve been working at a travel agency and tour operator in Germany, which specializes in sustainable tourism and in the South Caucasus region” says Greta. “I was always interested in this tourism field and instead of just sitting in the office, I got interested in being out there and seeing what tourism in a national park looks like and at the same time finding out what the possibilities and challenges are in a remote place like Tusheti.”
Fellow volunteer Liis has a diploma in environmental protection and biology and has served as a board member at the NGO Estonian Green Movement for two years. “I wanted to come to Tusheti national park to see with my own eyes how environment protection works in Georgia,” she says. “I really liked that Tusheti is such a remote place high in the mountains and that there is so much wildlife and so many plant species here.”
Greta and Liis have had an active summer so far, walking the existing hiking routes around the national park and making them more accessible for tourists by adding trail markings, GPS coordinates and physical descriptions. The updates of the routes are being added to Googlemaps so tourists can download them directly to their phones or tablet devices.
The volunteers are also working on Tusheti’s marketing strategy. “The park’s Facebook account for example has in the past been only in Georgian,” Greta explains, “and so we help translate the information they offer. Now they have a new camping area and a new hostel and so they’re trying to get the information out to people who don’t speak Georgian.”
The park’s summer administration is in Omalo village, where ancient slate defensive towers rise from a cluster of stone houses with carved wooden balconies. The area is one of the most remote in Georgia, with a single access road – often in poor condition – through the Abano pass, at 2 850 metres.
“The poor road is the biggest obstacle for people to come here,” says Liis, “but these things are connected – why are there not so many people here, why is it so pretty? If the road were an asphalt highway Tusheti would not look the way it looks right now.”
The region has long fascinated outsiders for its preservation of unique Tushetian traditions, such as a taboo against eating pork, and the fact that some Tush speak the rare Caucasian language Bats. The locals have historically been sheep herders, making the famed mountain cheese guda. “The local people don’t stay here anymore for winter,” Liis explains, “but many come every year and they still have sheep as well as take in tourists at their guesthouses – there’s a lot more around than just the tourism business.”
The pair are also carrying out a survey of tourist opinion on the experience offered by Tusheti National Park. “We have questionnaires and we ask the tourists to fill them in” says Greta. “We also ask questions to the guesthouse owners because we want to get some sort of overview. “ The Georgian Agency of Protected Areas is interested in how locals see the tourist development – is it positive or negative – they want to know how they plan to promote themselves, using Facebook or other means.”
But all good things must come to an end, and the pair will be leaving Tusheti at the end of September. “We couldn’t stay longer,” says Liis, “because September is the end of the season and after that the road will be closed and it will be harder to get in – or out!”
Both volunteers say the experience has been rewarding so far. “The local Tushetians have been so welcoming and warm-hearted” says Greta. “We feel really integrated into the village, and the social life is definitely something we will miss.”
“I think everyone needs to be in the wilds of nature to clear their heads and find out what they really want from their life” says Liis reflectively. “I just hope that I can help the Administration of Protected Areas with my knowledge and experience to make this national park even better.”