2012 has been declared the “Year of Kakheti”, and with that moniker comes a new and improved Kakheti tourism website, funding for infrastructure renovations, and increased attention to the region’s tourism potential in the media.  Even entertainment programs such as the telenovela The Wine Road and the recent popular film Love Ballad feature Kakheti as a travel destination.  A new campaign to promote tourism in the region entitled “Find your own Kakheti” is intended to both advertise the region’s attractions and provide information to potential visitors.  The new website contains listings for attractions, accommodation, and transportation all in one place.   According to an article in Tabula, this new 100-million-lari project is co-funded by the World Bank and the Government of Georgia.  Geographically, the project will focus on the towns of Telavi, Kvareli, and Dartlo, and aim in particular to develop tourist infrastructure such as hotels, souvenir shops, and public restrooms in these areas.  In a press release from the Ministry of Economic and Sustainable Development, Minister Vera Kobalia said that the project will focus on infrastructure development and rehabilitate the most important tourist sites.  In the same release, Maia Sidamonidze, the head of the National Tourism Administration, said that events will be held throughout the year in Kakheti in order to encourage tourism within the region. The regional government of Kakheti expects to see positive economic results from the increase of tourism in the region, and states that “Tourism is expected to become a main source of income for the population, together with agriculture.”

Despite the attention that Kakheti has been receiving this year, people working in the tourist trade in the region note that tourism in 2012 has, as of mid-April, been slow.  The high season (beginning with warm weather in May and peaking in the fall with the wine harvest) has not started yet, but Davit Luashvili, an English-speaking taxi driver in Telavi, points out that compared to last year, 2012 has seen a decrease in the number of visitors, though he remains hopeful that the high season will bring more guests.  Shalva Mindorashvili, the owner of the Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant in Sighnaghi, concurs that 2012 has gotten off to a slow start, but does not expect many visitors until the warm weather arrives in May.  He believes that the lack of visitors can be explained in part by the weakness of the economy.

Construction on the streets of Telavi

Ultimately the improvements in infrastructure being made throughout the region as part of the Kakheti 2012 campaign, including the renovation of buildings in downtown Telavi, will make the region a more inviting place to spend time.  In the meantime, though, the effects of improvement may dissuade some guests from visiting the sites or fully appreciating their beauty.  As of early spring 2012, downtown Telavi more closely resembles a construction site than a charming tourist destination, and the road from the Kakheti Highway to the cave monasteries at Davit Gareji is in need of repair so that visitors can access the site more comfortably.  Few tourist destinations in Kakheti (or in Georgia in general) have clean restroom facilities that will appeal to foreign visitors, and some more remote sites even lack small maghazia where tourists could purchase a snack or a bottle of water.  These are the types of problems that the current initiative hopes to overcome, but it appears that the situation may briefly worsen before it improves.

One of the challenges that must be overcome in order to improve the tourism industry in Kakheti is the fact that tourists typically only stay for a short amount of time.  Davit Luashvili says most foreigners will only spend a day or two in the region, even though they might be traveling in Georgia for as long as a month.  Shalva Mindorashvili concurs, pointing out that a typical visitor can see all the sights in Sighnaghi in just a day and does not feel the need to linger overnight.  Increased hotel space, an aim of the new program, will help to alleviate this barrier and make it easier for visitors to stay overnight if they wish.   Mindorashvili points out, however, that it is not just infrastructural development that is necessary to bring more tourists to Kakheti, but a greater diversity of attractions to keep tourists busy and encourage them to stay for longer.  He says “We need to attract more people. Different ideas, different people who will dare to do new things.  We need to make people stay longer than a day.  When somebody comes and spends money they don’t want to stay longer than a day … We need something else not in the restaurant or hotel business—something to entertain the guests.”  He is full of ideas for potential projects in his hometown of Sighnaghi, such as bicycle tours, hang-gliding, and historical reenactment.

People working in the tourism industry in Kakheti are cautiously optimistic about the impact of the new development program.  They continue to hope that more visitors will come to the region, and that the new government program will contribute to that growth by making the area’s attractions more visible and easily accessible.  Mindorashvili says, “As a project, we like it. We’ll see how it will work.  It’s nice as an idea…It’s up to the tour companies and the government itself, but we’ll cooperate.  We need to cooperate with the government and tourist companies.”

Though 2012 has not yet been a tourist year for Kakheti, great potential remains.  As Luashvili points out: “Georgia is always open for everyone…They just need to decide to come to Georgia and Kakheti. If they wish to come, they’re welcome. Our government welcomes everyone to come and see our great country.  We have wine, and you can come to drink with us together.”  It is the traditional welcoming attitude of Kakheti combined with the resources being devoted to improve tourism that may eventually turn Kakheti into the tourist paradise that many envision for its future.

You might notice that the style of this post is a bit different–it was originally written for another website, but things didn’t work out and I think the post is worth reading, so I’ve given it a new home here.  –Em