World Heritage tourism and the built space of Svaneti, Georgia
Located at the head of the Enguri gorge in Svaneti in western Georgia, the village community of Ushguli represents a classic example of the rural depopulation of a peripheral high mountain region. Beginning in the late 1980s, this community of four villages experienced the severe loss of its population in the context of state-organised resettlement plans, prompted by extreme weather in 1986/87, including snowstorms and avalanches. These events resulted in the outmigration of around 50% of the population. In contrast, in recent years the region has developed significant potential for tourism, providing families in the Upper Svaneti area with opportunities to overcome the poverty that continues to plague whole of Georgia.
Photo 1: An abandoned Soviet-style house in Svaneti
The history of the Svaneti region is closely connected with the history of Georgia. Because of its border location, Svaneti benefited from the rise of the Georgian Kingdom beginning in the Middle Ages. King David IV (1073-1125), also known as David the Builder, achieved border security in the north by integrating the Svans into the Georgian military system. In this context, he ordered the building of a line of fortifications. With the decline of medieval Georgia, Svaneti became the location of the kingdom’s treasury in the late Middle Ages, as the nobility withdrew into the mountains after invasions by armies belonging to the Mongols, Persians and Ottomans. Despite all attempts to exert influence during the time of Christianisation and during the Soviet period, Svans retained the traits of a traditional culture until today. These traces of a traditional culture both in the built environment and in everyday social practices make Svaneti an interesting destination for tourists in search of an extraordinary and exotic place.
Figure 1: Map of present-day Georgia outlining the historic region of Svaneti
Figure 2: Map of Upper Svaneti with a selection of historically important places
Figure 3: The northern border of Medieval Georgia in Upper Svaneti was secured by towers and fortifications
Photos 1-4: Ushguli from c. 1910 to the present day.
Images from top left - bottom right: c.1910; c. 1950 during the main Soviet reconstruction phase; in the 1970s; and in 2019.
After attaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996, and benefiting from economic stabilisation since around 2010, Svaneti in general, and especially the village community of Ushguli, has seen an incremental rise in tourism.
Thus far, the region has been relatively unprepared for meeting the interests and needs of visitors and coping with the diversity characterising modern lifestyles. The encounter (and in many instances, clash) of interests between villagers and tourists is difficult to manage. Visitor numbers are continuously growing as Georgia has been experiencing a steady increase in tourism for years, from 5.2 million in 2015 to 8.7 million in 2018. Svaneti is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations within Georgia. In light of this, local residents have advanced their efforts to promote their economic goals, which is frequently done by converting their old buildings into guest houses and restaurants. Therefore, Ushguli offers the ideal conditions for the use of tourism to overcome economic and social crises, against a backdrop of change to material and immaterial objects driven by various stakeholders.
The push for the development of tourism, as currently seen in Upper Svaneti, came from the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. This development can be traced back to his vision of Svaneti as the Switzerland of the Caucasus. In 2019, the number of tourists had already reached around 150,000 per year. With a controversial new building project in Mestia, the regional centre of Upper Svaneti, next to Seti Square, Saakashvili introduced an architectural style that has changed Svaneti ever since. Along the main street, buildings in the Swiss ‘chalet style; dominate. These buildings consist of a ground floor built with quarry stone, whereas on the first floor there are wooden balconies, which are not typical for either Svaneti or Georgia. In general, there are no limits to the builders’ creativity. The built environment in constantly in flux, as some roof terraces from one year are transformed into closed floors with bedrooms the following year. However, some shells of buildings are left undeveloped for years because the interest rates for loans are astronomically high in Georgia. If there is no noticeable success in the first year, many hopes for an income from tourism remain unfulfilled, yet the heavy burden of debt remains.
Photo 6: Hotel buildings and shops in the Swiss chalet style in the central district of Mestia.
Photo 7: Chalet-style bar and restaurant in Mestia with roof terrace in winter.
Photo 8: The creative expansion of a café in Mestia by adding a roof terrace to the building.
The international tourism industry regards Ushguli as an ideal image of a Svan mountain village. The number of visitors throughout Georgia is rising steadily and the extension of the road from Mestia to Ushguli now makes it easy for day tourists to reach Ushguli without having to stay overnight. In Ushguli, you encounter a cultural area in which, as described in the UNESCO award, architecture of medieval origin is combined with an impressive, authentic mountain landscape in a unique way. All this has been preserved, since inhabitants of the village still practice traditional mountain farming.
Photo 9: UNESCO-village Chazhashi.
Meanwhile, Ushguli follows the path of Mestia. Both the architectural heritage and the cultural landscape surrounding it have undergone such drastic changes within a few years that there are apparent differences between the situation on-site and UNESCO's justification for the allocation of World Heritage status. It would not be the first time that the UNESCO Committee would be in the position to limit the scope of the World Heritage Site in Georgia or to withdraw it from an entire collection of buildings. UNESCO’s perspective on the issue was evident in the dispute over the restoration of the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi.
Photo 10: Hotel building in a Swiss chalet style in Ushguli.
Photo 11: Modern buildings increasingly dominate the appearance of Ushguli.
Photo 12: Many residents do what they can, but here too the chalet style prevails: A self-initiated renovation of a residential and stable building from the 1950s in Ushguli.
To date, the Georgian state has not developed a sustainable management plan that would guarantee the preservation of the buffer zone (buildings, landscape conservation, sustainable agriculture around the village of Chazhashi) by involving the local administration and taking the needs of the local population into account. This challenge cannot be met by the inhabitants of Ushguli alone without external financial support. After all, this buffer zone includes all other villages and a considerable part of the cultural landscape surrounding them.
Figure 4: The World Heritage status of the village community of Ushguli
Finally, most holidaymakers lack information about the real economic, social and also ecological conditions on-site, which makes it difficult to make a sustainable choice and often means that the use of a sustainable service is not possible. Without summer and winter tourism, there will be no potential for development in the region in the long run. A neo-liberal tourism policy without supportive state intervention has led to a situation where most families can only operate tourism as an extended subsistence economy. Accommodation prices are far too low, so that small providers would not be able to keep their own Soviet-era apartment buildings, which they need to accommodate guests, nor the medieval towers.
This post focuses on one aspect of a longer article on tourism development in Svaneti: Stefan Applis, ‘On the influence of mountain and heritage tourism in Georgia: the exemplary case of Ushguli’. Erdkunde, 73:4 (2019): 259-275. You can read the piece here.
Stefan Applis is an Assistant Professor of Geography and its Didactics at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen (Germany). In his current human geography research project, he is investigating the influence of tourist practices on the Svaneti region in Georgia. He is also working on a digital ‘Archive of Transition’ of the cultural space of Svaneti in collaboration with colleagues from German and Georgian universities. On Twitter: @doinggeography
All images except photos 2, 3, and 4 are produced by Stefan Applis.
Notes  N. Mestvirishvili, ‘Social Exclusion in Georgia: Perceived Poverty, Participation and Psycho-Social Wellbeing’, Caucasus Analytical Digest, 40 (2012), pp. 2-5. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/146653/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest40.pdf CRRC (Caucasus Research Resource Centres), ‘Caucasus barometer, Georgia 2019’, http://www.crrccenters.org/ caucasusbarometer  B. Schrade, Das christliche Swanetien. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Kunst der byzantinischen ‘Peripherie’ zwischen Jerusalem und Konstantinopel [The Christian Svaneti. Contributions of the history and art of the Byzantine ‘periphery’ between Jerusalem and Constantinople] (Wiesbaden: Reichert, forthcoming, 2020)  ‘Convention concerning the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. World Heritage Committee. Twentieth Session Merida’, ICOMOS, last modified 7 December 1996, https://whc.unesco.org/archive/1996/whc-96-conf201-21e.pdf  Molly Corso, ‘Georgia: Tbilisi Tries to Make a Switzerland Out of Svaneti’, Eurasianet, 13 October 2010, https://eurasianet.org/georgia-tbilisi-tries-to-make-a-switzerland-out-of-svaneti http://georgiatoday.ge/uploads/issues/15566598c898548441734085508f0731.pdf  Stefan Applis, ‘Perspectives | Tourism sustains, and threatens, Georgia’s highland heritage. Tales of an authentic society living at the edge of time fail to account for higher living standards in the Soviet heyday’, Eurasianet, 2 November 2018, https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-tourism-sustains-and-threatens-georgias-highland-heritage  BME (Business Media Georgia), ‘Passenger Traffic Increased by 40% at Kutaisi International Airport in 10 Months’, 12 November 2019. https://bm.ge/en/article/passenger-traffic-increased-by-40-at-kutaisi-international-airport-in-10-months-2019-/43443  Stefan Applis, ‘Perspectives | The threats to Georgia’s world heritage sites. Should locals be expected to forgo modernity to satisfy the demands of UNESCO and the global tourism industry?’, Eurasianet, 14 August 2020, https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-the-threats-to-georgias-world-heritage-sites  ‘World Heritage list: Upper Svaneti. No 709: advisory body evaluation’, UNESCO, last modified 1996, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/709/documents/  Applis, ‘The threats to Georgia’s world heritage sites’