Press release for Mestia’s website

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Will the low volume/low-budget seasonal tourism (mostly hikers) hurt Adishi, Georgia, economically and force its residents to leave for a more prosperous lifestyle elsewhere? Or will full-scale tourism reach Adishi as it has in nearby Mestia?  If so, will the authentic experience and hospitality received by tourists today in Adishi be replaced by standard hotels/services and commercial interactions?

I hope that my documentary film will answer such questions. My name is Dr. Keith Kenney and I’m a visual communications professor at the University of South Carolina. I’m working in Tbilisi for 11 months and my job is to improve the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management (CSJMM). In my free time, I want to create a documentary film about Adishi.

I agree with UNESCO. The Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus deserves to be a World Heritage site because of its exceptional mountain scenery and its medieval-type villages and tower-houses. Adishi is in a gorgeous location with some of the most hospitable people on Earth.

I believe, however, that Adishi will experience strong forces for change in the next couple of years.  Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has promised to develop the Svaneti region; the government has already built a good road to Mestia and the entire town of Mestia seems under construction or re-construction. This development could extend to Adishi. The government could build new roads, replace electrical poles, perhaps even re-start Adishi’s school and add a library. If a ski resort were built nearby, which is in the planning stage, entrepreneurs then could open new hotels and restaurants, maybe even a gift shop. If such development does not reach Adishi, the farming village might continue to simply provide homestay experiences to hikers for a night. But it is doubtful that maintaining the status will be possible, in part because the current tourism model may not allow Adishi residents to earn a sustainable living.

I don’t know what will happen. But when mountain or seaside people experience hardships, they tend to sell their highly desirable land for a quick profit, and then all kinds of businesses arrive to cater to wealthy vacationers. Prices rise, and the local people either end up serving tourists or moving away.

Moreover, I am concerned because many of Adishi’s buildings and defense towers have become piles of rubble.  If such deterioration continues, then Adishi’s potential to attract tourists could also deteriorate. My film will show how Adishi residents will respond to challenges they encounter as time goes by.

Two recent graduates from the master’s program in Journalism and Media Management at the CSJMM are assisting in shooting and editing the film. Nana Mghebrishvili and Mari Papidze have already shot several hours of video and they will return to Adishi with me at the end of January, in the middle of May, and at the beginning of August to tell the story. My wife, Susanna Melo, and Ramaz Gerleiani are also invaluable team members. Susanna is the film’s photographer; in addition, she suggests shooting opportunities and helps interview Adishi residents. Ramaz, our official driver, translates from Svan to Georgian.

Adishi: holy city

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Adishi is a small village, 6,000 feet above sea level, in the Svaneti region of Georgia. Nine families live in this village in the Greater Caucasus Mountains throughout the year, and another six families live in the village during the summer. Other families have moved away. In 1987, avalanches destroyed several homes in the area and killed seventy people, mostly school children. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union resettled some 2,500 families, including almost all the families in Adishi, to valleys of eastern Georgia.

People in Adishi milk their cows and make cheese daily. They trade their cheese for grain, which they use to bake bread in wood-burning stoves. They also grow potatoes, the only crop suitable for its terrain. Most cash comes from backpacking tourists. People in Adishi don’t have extravagant desires; they want a better road, which will enable them to have a supply of food during winters, and a more reliable supply of electricity.

Their best hope for economic growth may be to expand tourism, especially eco-tourism. Ecotourism is responsible travel that respects the environment and improves the conditions of local communities. It’s a broad term that comprises various activities – from sports (rafting) to culture (studying the traditions of Svaneti’s towers). According to the Deputy Chairman of the Department for Tourism and Resorts, ecotourism can make living in mountain areas sustainable. He said that house renting, guide services and horse riding are revitalizing local economies.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

It helps that UNESCO designated the Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus as a World Heritage site. UNESCO bestowed this honor because the area has exceptional mountain scenery and it has preserved to a remarkable degree its medieval-type villages and tower-houses. UNESCO World Heritage Centre

When tourists saw my video team at work, they asked, “Why Adishi?” I respond that it is a small village, with defense towers dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, beautiful scenery, and that it maintains old Svaneti traditions. Then the tourists might say that Svaneti has several such towns, which is true. So I asked some residents what makes Adishi special.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

They explained that Adishi is a holy place. It has seven churches, and in one church you can view an icon dating back to the 10th Century, but I need to check on this fact. No fact checking is required, however, when stating that the Adysh Bibles were preserved there for centuries. This important early medieval (897) book is the oldest dated extant manuscript of the Georgian version of the Gospels. It was created in a monastery in what is now northeastern Turkey and it was later brought to Adishi.

More people arrive by foot than. . .

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

In the three days we spent in Adishi, one car arrived on average each day. One car brought us to Adishi; one carried food and passengers; and one brought our homestay owner and spouse (their brother operated the homestay in their absence). On the other hand, as many as 40 hikers arrived one evening, and the other evenings at least a half dozen people hiked down the mountain(s) to Adishi. Why? Because it takes 3-5 hours, depending on road conditions, to drive to Adishi from Mestia, the closest big town. “Big” means that Mestia has an ATM, a bank, a place to buy food, a restaurant, and so on. In addition, it costs 150 lari ($90) for the mini-bus ride. In contrast, you can hike from Mestia in one day for free. Moreover, you don’t need to carry food, sleeping bag, tent, and so on because in Mestia you can pay 40 lari ($24) for a bed and three meals, including homemade wine and vodka, but more on that later.

If someone drives you to Adishi, you’ll be bounced all over the vehicle as its tires go over rocks that rise up from the “road.” I put road in quotation marks because it resembles a hiking trail. Like a hiking trail, the road is marked by spray paint so you don’t lose your way. Also like a hiking trail, the road goes through small streams rather than over them. On the other hand, if you hike, and few clouds are blocking your view, you’ll stare at several snow-capped mountains and you’ll smell freshly cut hay. You may meet someone interesting or simply stop, rest, and paint, as one Israeli hiker did.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Many of the hikers had heard about Adishi from a Lonely Planet guide, which describes a 3-day hike from Mestia to Ushgulu. Never underestimate the power of Lonely Planet, a major source of information for the backpackers about hostels for sleeping, cheap food, and fun activities. Without backpackers’ awareness and enthusiasm for this 3-day trip, I don’t think Adishi would attract many tourists.

Nor should you underestimate word-of-mouth advertising. I was surprised when I kept meeting young and older tourists from Israel. I heard, but can’t verify, that 35-40 percent of tourists in Georgia come from Israel. They come for the great hiking, tremendous hospitality of Georgians, the “authentic” experience, and for low prices. Then they return home and tell their friends. No one saw any advertising or other materials promoting Georgia. They just heard it was a great place to visit.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011