Travelling to Svaneti

Svaneti is known for its largely untouched mountain landscape and the unique architecture of its mountain villages. For this reason, more than 150,000 people worldwide are drawn there annually. Tourism is changing the region massively, but life is only possible with tourism. Svaneti is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Georgia. The historic Caucasus region is considered a culturally closed space with traditions that have survived even the Soviet era. In addition to its remarkable history and architecture, one finds an incomparably biodiverse mountain landscape that attracts scientists and tourists alike. Most mountain dwellers living permanently in Svaneti practise mountain farming, mainly for self-sufficiency.

Svaneti is located in the northwest of Georgia. A distinction is made between Upper or Upper Svaneti (Zemo Svaneti in Georgian) and Lower Svaneti (Kvemo Svaneti) in the administrative regions of Mingrelia-Upper Svaneti and Ratscha-Letschchumi-Lower Svaneti. About 14,600 people live in Upper Svaneti along the central Enguri valley and about 9,000 in Lower Svaneti. Lower Svaneti is situated between the Svaneti Mountains and the Letchchumi Mountains in the valley of the Tshkenistskali River. The most important city in Svaneti is Mestia, the administrative centre of Upper Svaneti.

Upper Svaneti is often mistakenly equated with the historical region of Svaneti, which was already divided into Upper and Lower Svaneti in the High Middle Ages. It is also often confused with the so-called Free Svaneti. This is a designation for a part of Upper Svaneti that has been used since the occupation by Tsarist Russia.

The structure of the Svanetian mountainous area ranges from different forest stages (spruce, fir, beech, birch, hornbeam and oriental hornbeam forests) to alpine mats and a rock and glacier zone. The relief along the two main rivers, Enguri and Tshkenistskali is characterised by outstanding ruggedness, with deeply incised side valleys, some of which are difficult to access, and high mountain passes. Svaneti has a high biodiversity and several plants that only occur in the Caucasus, such as unique species of bellflower, thistle and cinquefoil. As recent studies show, mountain dwellers still have a high level of knowledge of local plants for medicinal use. In this context, great importance is attached to the vegetable and herb gardens close to the house, which offer an impressive variety of plant communities. The upper natural forest limit is about 2,200 metres. In the meantime, however, this has been lowered by 200 to 300 metres due to centuries of pasture farming and logging. It is even lower on the slopes facing the sun, as the forests were felled long ago to use the slopes near the settlements for agriculture.

In Upper Svaneti, we encounter a situation that is probably historically unique in Europe: an entire region, or more precisely, the village communities between Latali and Ushguli, had never been under feudal rule. Until the advance of Tsarist Russia, the inhabitants of these village communities could fend off the attempts to seize them from the territories to the west and south and maintain their own legal system – similar to that of the Swiss Eidgenossenschaften.

Articles on the history of Svaneti at
Svaneti Series | A brief history of Svaneti (Part I): Churches, monasteries, church paintings and sacral objects
Svaneti Series | A brief history of Svaneti (Part II): The divisions of Svaneti, the Free Svaneti and the isolation of Svaneti with the decline of Georgian Kingdom

World Heritage Site in Svaneti

Ushguli is the village community to which Georgia owes one of its three mentions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing the medieval architecture with its fortified towers and tower houses in the village of Chashashi (Ushguli) is the longed-for destination of almost all of the now around 150,000 tourists who travel to Svaneti every year. This exceptional archaic architecture with its fortified towers, which is also typical for other regions of the Caucasus, can still be found in large numbers in all villages of the former Free Svaneti. It is easier for travellers to see them in Georgia than on the Russian northern side of the Great Caucasus, where there are also examples of fortified towers and fortified mountain villages in Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Chechnya.

Journalistic contributions on the endangerment of the world cultural heritage in Svaneti:
Stefan Applis (2021). World Heritage tourism and the built space of Svaneti, Georgia. Peripheral histories. January 2021
Stefan Applis (2020). 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. August 14, 2020.
Stefan Applis (2018). 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. November 2, 2018

Various travel platforms on the internet are dominated by narratives of an original society in Upper Svaneti, existing on the edge of time, which has hardly changed for centuries and in which life still has fairytale features. However, this narrative has narrow limits and little in common with actual life there, which in many cases is on the poverty line, cut off from medical care and political participation, and offers few prospects for the future. Moreover, the high standards of living during the heyday of the Soviet Union, when Svaneti was the focus of regional development and a large number of the population acquired higher education and university degrees, are left out.

Articles on reflections on Svaneti from the outside in terms of colonial perspectives at
SvanetiSeries | Gottfried Merzbacher (1843-1926) in Svaneti – The Country and Its People
SvanetiSeries | The Svans as members of the ‚Oriental Other‘ in the Soviet film „Salt for Svanetia“ (1930) by Mikhail Kalatozov | A visual commentary (Part I) | Part II 
SvanetiSeries | An overview on “Fragments from Svaneti” (1903) by Wilhelm Rickmer-Rickmers (Part I) | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Tourism in Svaneti

Most visitors are somewhat misguided in their ideas about the region – certainly also because of the marketing strategies of a globally operating tourism industry. For example, when visiting Ushguli, they hope to see the place before it is overcrowded. An Australian tourist, for example, told us that Europe is usually so crowded no matter where you go. She wanted to visit Svaneti while it was still pristine. To satisfy this idea of originality, however, the inhabitants would have to live in a way that even their grandparents only experienced in rudimentary form and that had been a thing of the past since the 1950s at the latest. By the end of the 1980s, half of Ushguli’s population had already fled the still adverse living conditions and left the region in the wake of catastrophic snowfalls. Despite many improvements, even today, a year-round life in Svaneti is often still full of hardship.

In villages like Adishi and Ushguli, tourism is ultimately the only way to generate a household income that can support a family of several people. Throughout Georgia, families often live as economic communities spread over several places and are thus indispensably linked to each other. As the prices for meat, wool and dairy products are low due to the high importance of agriculture for self-sufficiency in Georgia, selling them is often not worthwhile. Nevertheless, the laborious production of agricultural products is indispensable for families, as they otherwise lack the money to secure other basic needs. If a family wants to maintain their farm and not burden their family income with the additional purchase of food, they have to take in tourists as guests. Otherwise, they would have to live in such precarious conditions that, for example, care in case of illness cannot be financed or secondary education for the children is impossible.

World Heritage Site according to UNESCO Categories IV and V: The UNESCO World Heritage Site awarded in the village community of Ushguli comprises individual monuments and groups of buildings of towers, churches, residential buildings and stables exclusively in the village district of Chazhashi with an area of 1.09 ha. In addition, there is a buffer zone of 19.16 ha (1 km radius around Chashashi), which includes the other districts of Murkmeli, Chvibiani and Zhibiani with individual notable buildings and the area used for agriculture. According to the UNESCO Commission, the entire village community represents a cultural area in which the architecture of medieval origin is uniquely combined with an impressive, authentic mountain landscape (Criterion IV) and has been preserved to this day thanks to traditional forms of land use. This is closely linked to other authentic features of traditional Swanic life (criterion V) and guarantees the preservation of the existing human-environment relationship. The restriction to local building materials (stone slabs from slate and limestone quarries) and traditional handicraft techniques is particularly emphasised – with a total of 200 counted buildings of medieval origin, the other districts of Ushguli are also included.

To date, there is no sustainable management plan on the part of the Georgian state that guarantees the preservation of the buffer zone (structures, landscape maintenance, sustainable agriculture) with the involvement of the local administration and the needs of the local population. This challenge cannot be met by the inhabitants of Ushguli alone without external financial support. After all, all other villages and a considerable part of the surrounding cultural landscape belong to this buffer zone. However, UNESCO does not provide financial support for construction and conservation measures. How strongly the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) upholds its decision-making principles becomes clear when one looks closely at the justification for the 1996 decision. Several sections contained therein can undoubtedly be understood as a warning. The original application of the Georgian State had included the whole of Ushguli. ICOMOS, however, limited the status to Chashashi but also mentioned the entire high mountain region in this context – as an incentive, so to speak: the districts of Chvibiani and Chibiani, however, had been too heavily over formed during the Soviet era and could therefore not be considered a World Heritage Site according to the UNESCO Statutes.

Geographical travel books on Svaneti

The following books have won the top prize at the International Tourism Fair in Berlin, the ITB Destination Award: „Swanetien entdecken. Ein Kultur- und Naturreiseführer für Georgien“ and the photo and textbook „Svaneti between tradition and modernity“ published by Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle. A cultural and nature travel guide for Georgia“ and the picture and text volume „Swanetien. Tradition and Modernity“. Both books are the result of a research project in tourism geography. The ITB Book Award is the most crucial German book prize for travel literature; it is awarded annually at the ITB, the world’s largest tourism trade fair, in cooperation with the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels:

Text: Stefan Applis (2023)

Photos and illustrations: Stefan Applis & Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle (2022, 2023)