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Georgia to Market Natural Parks

Officials hope Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park will become a major tourist attraction.
By Giga Chikhladze

The official party was dwarfed by the pine-trees that rose up 20 metres before breaking out into branches at the crown. They had come for the official opening of a huge national park which Georgians hope will earn much-needed tourist revenue.

"The June 9 opening of the first tourist season in our park heralds the beginning of a new era for our region, the era of a better future," proclaimed Borjomi mayor Beso Popkhadze.

"Today could be called the beginning of the dynamic development of eco-tourism in the Caucasus as a whole," said environment minister Nino Chkhobadze. Most of the audience were inclined to agree. The reopening of this vast park could signal a big boost for Georgia's underdeveloped tourist industry.

Borjomi, best known outside Georgia for its mineral water, has been waiting for this for nearly nine years. It was in 1994 that the World Wildlife Fund, WWF, launched its project to rehabilitate the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, one of the largest nature reserves in the Caucasus.

The park stretches across six districts and covers 5,300 square kilometres, or 7.6 per cent of the whole country. Situated at an elevation of some 3,000 metres, it is home to dozens of rare animals and plants. As well as its famous pine trees, visitors can see Caucasian rhododendrons, Alpine camomile (anthemis biebersteiniana) as well as chamois, eagles and salamanders. Ancient churches, monasteries, fortresses, and other historical landmarks lie hidden in its forests.

"It was a matter of paramount importance for the Caucasus office of WWF to turn this area into an international-class natural preserve," explained Kakha Tolordava, spokesman for WWF's Tbilisi office.

"It's been a long process. The Georgian government gave the project the go-ahead in 1995, and the German government approved the budget in 1997. We've done it at last despite numerous obstacles, and we are proud of our work."

One controversial issue that arose along the way was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which is now under construction and is slated to run through the Borjomi valley. Environmentalists protested strongly against this, but BP, the main pipeline operator, says it is applying its most stringent safety controls on the Borjomi stretch of the line.

Germany has provided millions of euros to revitalise the park since 1999.

"Communities inside the national park were initially opposed to the project," recalled Muladze. "This sentiment was only natural. Many locals have been felling trees and hunting in these forests all their life, and would not put up with a ban. But once real money began pouring in, the feeling changed. Now the locals are thanking us."

Park administrators are allowing local farmers to carry on using their old alpine pastures. "Otherwise the locals could have revolted as they would no longer be able to keep farm animals. But they were even more impressed by better roads and new schools," said Muladze.

The investors have put money into the local economy. Local schools have been renovated and new ones built in several dozen villages in the buffer zone around the park. Youth leisure centres and sports grounds have been built; roads and water lines repaired. The hope is that 5,000 new jobs could be created locally.

"The ceiling was leaking in our school, and sometimes we had to cancel classes," recalled Ketino Abdaladze, a schoolteacher from the village of Rveli. "When they pulled down the building I didn't expect them to ever build a new one. But they did, and also bought new desks, chairs, tables and sports gear for the students."

The national park's budget is less than 25,000 dollars a year. Admission is free for tourists, and the organisers hope that the comparative low rates charged for lodges and guides will attract foreign visitors.

The main draw of the park will be its hiking trails, which could take upwards of 400 walkers a day.

"We always urge tourists to bring a guide," said Natia Muladze, who runs the park's education department. "Even though our trails are well signposted, it is easy to lose one's way in the park. These forests are treacherous."

Park officials are not expecting many locals, though. According to the Georgian Camping Society, up to 100,000 Georgians, mostly young people, go hiking in the mountains every year. But no more than 40 of the 168 tourists who came to the Borjomi park last year were Georgians.

"The Borjomi-Kharagauli Park? No, I don't think I want to go hiking there," said Shalva Mdinaradze, 27, who has tramped across much of Georgia with his backpack and tent.

"First of all, the idea of paying to spend the night in my own tent seems odd to me. Second, no real hiker will follow a fixed route, and that's what they want every visitor to do at Borjomi-Kharagauli."

Nineteen other natural parks in Georgia could now be refurbished in the same way. "The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is one of the most ambitious projects in Georgia in recent years," said Gigi Kuparadze, chief of Georgia's tourism office.

"Thirty per cent of our territory could be national [parkland] by the year 2010, and that would be a big boost for a real profitable tourist industry in Georgia."

Giga Chikhladze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi

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