Responsible tourism: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan small group tour
A lot of the time on this tour is spent in towns and cities, but we do spend a significant proportion of the trip exploring the countryside and wilder areas of the region. We also visit the extraordinary landscapes of Gobustan, where mud volcanoes belch from the earth to create a very unusual phenomenon. We brief our travellers to stick to the trails so as not to disturb this unique landscape and leave it for others to enjoy. Elsewhere at Gobustan are a remarkable collection of petroglyphs and prehistoric rock art, which are particularly susceptible to damage, and again we ensure our travellers do not damage these. These countries were part of the Soviet Union and as such western European norms regarding the environment are not so well entrenched, therefore it is quite common for local people to dispose of rubbish simply by throwing it out of the window. We operate a strict no litter policy on our tours, and work to educate our drivers and other service providers so as to avoid contributing to this problem.
Similarly, in conjunction with our local team we work with hotels and guesthouses to implement best practices when it comes to environmental matters – in some places this is far behind what we might be used to in other parts of the world. This includes basic things like not replacing towels - small things but the Caucasus especially outside of the capital cities is not as used to tourism as countries in western Europe.
In Svaneti we stay in small guesthouses which make a point of using local produce for the meals it provides – local in the sense of being from the village and surrounding area, not from elsewhere. Not only is this a great introduction to the culinary culture of Georgia but it helps in a small way to cut down on food miles.
On all of tours we strive to include a strong focus on local communities and we are firm believers that tourism should have a positive impact on the places visited. On this tour we try to allow our travellers to gain a real insight into the traditional customs of the region; a good example of this is when we stop in a small village near Garni, where we have lunch in a village house and can help to prepare the food. Not only is this a great experience for travellers but it means that small scale community based tourism projects, often ignored by mainstream tourism, are able to benefit from our visit.
On this tour we spend time in the remote province of Svaneti, tucked away in the High Caucasus mountains. We stay at locally owned guesthouses and hotels and where appropriate employ the services of local people in order not only to gain a greater insight into the complex traditions here but to ensure that they gain financial benefit from our visit, rather than just being ‘exhibits’. The communities here do not have a wealth of opportunities to earn money, and tourism helps to bring vital income to the region. It also helps to ensure that there is employment for young people – a key problem with many of the more isolated communities in this part of the world is that younger generations migrate to the cities due to a lack of employment opportunities, and this has a negative impact upon such places, meaning that traditions start to die out. The presence of tourism helps, in a small way, to keep the traditional ways alive.
These are very traditional areas with certain codes of behaviour, and the people here are not that accustomed to outsiders. We ensure that our travellers are appropriately briefed in order so as not to offend local sensibilities. This can include appropriate behaviour in front of local shrines, and the customs of Georgian hospitality. This also applies to the numerous churches and monasteries that we visit on this trip; all three are deeply religious countries and it is important that we respect these traditions.
We also stop to visit communities of Armenia’s ethnic minorities including the Molokans, Kurds and Yazidis. We only visit villages that are pleased to receive us – it is important that we do not treat such communities just as ‘exhibits’, and we recognise that some traditional groups prefer to be left alone.
We visit a number of sites and monuments on this tour that do not necessarily receive much funding from other sources; the entrance fees that we include help to maintain the heritage of this country for future generations – not just western travellers but more importantly to local people to whom they have far more cultural and historical significance. We use locally owned suppliers and our partners here are deeply involved with the preservation of the culture and heritage of the country. Many of the region’s sites have been poorly maintained in the past and entrance fees play an important part in their restoration and conservation.