Ushguli’s value as a tourist destination lies in its defensive tower houses (see Pavan 2011) and the remarkable degree of the original medieval appearance of its landscape (see ICOMOS 1994, UNESCO 1996), which have held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1996, and in its proximity to the foot of Shkara, the second highest peak in Greater Caucasus and Georgia’s highest mountain, located twelve kilometres north of the community, in the extended Enguri gorge.
Hikers, mountaineers and skiers from outside Georgia have been coming to Ushguli since Soviet times, with particularly large numbers visiting in the 1970s (for an overview on tourism in Svanetia during Sowjet times, see Stadelbauer 1983, Cappucci, Pavliashvili & Zarilli 2015, Karthisvili, Muhar, Dax & Khelashvili 2019); the villagers thus possess fundamental levels of experience in tourism and the associated practices, including mountain and horse-trekking guiding and the provision of accommodation and meals (cf. Applis 2018).
The closing years of the twenty-first century’s initial decade brought a substantial increase in visits to Ushguli by independent travellers who use internet platforms to choose their destinations, aided by the establishment of permanent transport services using vehicles suited to the local terrain, which have made this remote community considerably more accessible to international tourists. Ushguli welcomes particularly large numbers of visitors in the three summer months. The narrative of an authentic society living at the edge of time, where little has changed over the decades and centuries and where life has a sense of fairytale about it dominates Internet sites such as Wikitravel, TripAdvisor, Facebook and booking.com. More serious travel writing is not always disinclined to echo this discourse (cf. Anderson 2004, Nasmyth 2017). It is a narrative, however, with narrow limits, and one that has little to do with the reality of life at subsistence level, cut off from medical care and political participation and afflicted by a lack of prospects for the future. It also fails to take account of the higher standards of living enjoyed in the region in the Soviet era’s heyday, when Ushguli was linked to Tbilisi by daily helicopter flights and was able to provide secondary schooling that enabled a large number of the children of Usghuli’s current aged population to eventually attain university degrees (cf. Applis 2018).
In Ushguli, tourism is, in the final analysis, the only way of earning a household income capable of sustaining a family with a number of members, some of whom may live, primarily for social and economic reasons, in various locations across Georgia. The continued high rates of subsistence farming in Georgia mean that the prices fetched by meat, wool and dairy products are low. Therefore, to keep their farm, a family will need to attract tourists as paying guests; the alternative is living in circumstances so precarious that medical care cannot be afforded in case of illness and secondary schooling for the children of the family is out of reach.
This situation gives rise to a number of issues and tensions for the villagers. One of the foremost is competition among the families of Ushguli for the tourists; each family can only compete by seeking to meet tourists’ expectations (low prices, authentic atmosphere, standards of comfort, food, additional extras) and distancing and distinguishing itself from the remainder of the community. In this way, tourism jeopardises established processes of identity formation and reciprocal recognition among the members of the Ushguli community, whose survival thus far in the past thirty years of economic crisis has been due precisely to community-oriented actions.
On the other hand, tourism enables families to retain their farmsteads, or infuse them with new life and new purposes, and provides an economic basis for their continued residence in Ushguli.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2019)
Photography: © Stefan Applis (2018, 2017)
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