Adjara on the shores of the Black Sea. From the subtropical coastline, dotted with citrus plantations and seaside resorts, the lesser Caucasus Mountains rise impressively, their cloudy peaks already capped with snow in late November. Nestled in the foothills of these mountains is Mtirala National Park, one of Georgia’s youngest national parks, founded in 2007.
In addition to its humid forests of beech and chestnut – home to roe dear, brown bear and Caucasian toads – the park offers another attraction to visitors: the warm hospitality of its local communities.
“We have a very close relationship with the local population, as well as with local municipalities” says park director, Davit Khomeriki. “The local population are very much involved in welcoming tourists, in hosting them and looking after them. We try to encourage the training of young people in local communities, for example, as guides for groups of tourists.”
Eteri works at the information centre in the village of Chakvistavi, where many of the parks tourist facilities are located. “Guests arrive happy and go away happy, and the local people are also pleased to have them” she says. “We have guests from Norway, Sweden, America, Latvia, Germany, Israel and Saudi Arabia. They really like the nature here, the peace of the place and the chance to meet the locals.”
With the help of small business grants, the residents of Chakvistavi have developed a sustainable tourist infrastructure in the village, opening restaurants and guesthouses. The facilities mean visitors can spend longer in the park, bringing in additional revenue for the local community.
Zia has a four-room bed-and-breakfast in Chakvistavi. “We serve traditional Georgian food using our own products. We hardly buy things from the market – 90% of what we use is produced here. We keep cows and make cheese and other dairy products. We also have bees and make honey and taplis araki (a kind of honey vodka). Most days during the season the rooms are full. Most people come from Poland, but we also have people from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Germany.”
Jeiran runs a restaurant in the village on the banks of the gushing Chakvi river. “In season, I work with tourists from morning to night. Sometimes they call me from tourist agencies in the city to say they’re coming and to pre-order food. I also guide visitors up the path to the waterfall. We talk a lot and get on well!”
Sometimes, however, friendships last for much longer than the duration of a single visit. Ruslan is a park ranger who lives in Chaqvistavi. “There was one tourist, a Swede, who wanted to go from Mtirala to the nearby Kintrishi Nature Reserve using a path that he’d seen on the map. It wasn’t a tourist trail, just a path which was once used by locals but which is now too dangerous to use. We told him he couldn’t and that it was physically too difficult. Apart from that, he was alone, inexperienced and not wearing appropriate clothes.”
“He didn’t believe us and went anyway. When he didn’t return in the evening, I started looking for him and found him the next evening in a terrible condition – hungry, thirsty and covered in blood from the thorny bushes in the forest. Overnight he’d slept near a waterfall and was covered in mosquito bites. My friend took him in, fed him and the next day he went on his way. We had exchanged addresses and numbers, but I heard nothing from him after that.”
Five years later, I was at home resting on a day off and I heard voices in the yard – a man, a woman and child – talking to my father. My father invited them into the house and the man started telling a story about how he’d got lost in Mtirala five years earlier. So I listened from the other room and once I realized it was this Swedish man, I came into the room and he was so happy to see me. He told me he’d lost my address but had been looking for me. He introduced me to his wife and daughter that he’d brought back to Mtirala with him.”
According to Khomeriki, the support provided by CNF has played a huge role in developing a sustainable eco-tourist economy in Mtirala. In addition to salary top-ups for park rangers, CNF has funded the refurbishment of the park’s visitor’s centre and the purchase of vehicles for rangers as well as the construction of a wooden tower for bird-watching.
“Every year we get more suggestions from the local population” says Khomeriki, “and we’re working on getting our tourist facilities up to a high standard. These kind of close relations with local communities link us to each other very closely, and we’re grateful to CNF for helping us to do this.”