If the tourism industry becomes truly sustainable, Georgian youth will have a reason to stay in their regions, or even return to them from Tbilisi.
Tourism! Young people in the Georgian regions of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti and Kakheti firmly believe the sector can create jobs, provide better incomes, and ensure economic prosperity. After we talked to the Georgian youth during four urban development workshops in November 2017, we realized how much the growing tourism industry means for the lives and future prospects of young locals.
Tourism plays an increasingly important role in Georgia, where the sector has a significant impact on overall economic development. In 2016, foreign tourists generated $1.8 billion in the country, an 11% increase from 2015. Tourism now accounts for 7% of GDP, and its share continues to grow each year.
Beyond the numbers, tourism creates opportunities for young Georgians in places such as Zugdidi, Mestia, or Akhmeta. This should not be limited to the idea of opening a homestay or guesthouse.
First, we need to pay more attention to the diversity in the tourism sector in Georgia, where different tourism types can be found in close proximity. Apart from the well-established cultural heritage-based tourism, there is also adventure, wellness, and food tourism. Each of these offers a unique experience, requiring different sets of skills, services, and infrastructure.
The second opportunity is in the co-benefits of tourism-related investments. Georgia, endowed with a rich history and natural beauty, has no lack of “raw material” from which a booming tourism industry could be developed. But investments must complement these assets to create systems to properly welcome visitors.
A prime example is Mestia in the Caucasus mountain region. You can reach the picturesque town either through a long and partly dangerous 8-hour road trip from Tbilisi, or a 1-hour flight connection from the capital. However, there are few available flights per week, which are usually booked out months in advance.
At any time of the year, a power interruption can mean no internet for several days. During the summer months, accommodation, restaurants, and transportation in Mestia are completely overrun by rising numbers of tourists. The focus on the high season diverts investment away from the low season, which could be perfect for skiing and other winter activities if more facilities were in place.
Mestia and other top tourist sites in Georgia would hugely benefit from targeted public and private sector investments in facilities and services. Such improvements would be a win-win for both tourists and locals.
The more skills, the better
Achieving co-benefits from such investments demands that infrastructure needs from tourism are not inspected in isolation. It is a pity when tourism destinations receive a large-scale infrastructure upgrade, but only hotels and guesthouses end up benefiting from it.
If the tourism sector is meant to provide jobs, income, and economic prosperity for local communities, its investments take residents into account and aim at improving their quality of life. In line with this goal, our workshops and focus group discussions as part of ADB’s Livable Urban Areas project aim to sensitize local youth and other stakeholders about the broader opportunities in tourism and its role for regionally balanced development.
The third opportunity area is skills development. Despite the prominence of tourism in the economy, too many of Georgia’s tourist regions lack a sufficiently trained local labor force to build on the industry’s potential, as young participants in our consultations frequently mentioned.
Young people can work as tour guides if they have the necessary local knowledge combined with foreign language skills. Adventure tourism requires practice and safety instructors, as well as trained staff for equipment maintenance, while entertainment means jobs in singing, dancing, acting, or event planning. There are also jobs in local handicrafts, souvenirs, and other cultural products.
With tourism increasingly going digital, young Georgian app developers and web designers can double down on customizing online services for travelers and tourism service providers, including customized webpages and social media marketing campaigns. Another sector where youth may be able to find jobs is in agriculture, as visitors become interested in locally sourced, ecologically sustainable produce.
The more skills, the better. For instance, hospitality management courses at provincial colleges should be complemented by specific training in IT, agriculture and business management, engineering, and foreign languages.
A skilled workforce stands a much better chance of reaping the full benefits of the growth of the tourism industry, instead of getting stuck in low-paid unskilled jobs – or even worse, face unemployment.
Clearly, if the tourism industry becomes truly sustainable throughout Georgia, youth will have a reason to stay in their regions, or even return to them from Tbilisi. For such regionally balanced development to happen, though, we need to broaden the understanding of the opportunities the sector offers, take a strategic planning approach, and encourage investment in infrastructure and services, small businesses, and local skills development.