Interview: Developing Ecotourism in Georgia’s Protected Areas

German non-profit organization the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF) recently welcomed its new regional executive director, George Giacomini. via a message posted on its official Web site.

A dual citizen of the United States and Italy, Giacomini - who goes by the name of Geof - previously worked as the country director for US NGO Save the Children in Azerbaijan and Egypt. A Russian speaker, Geof graduated the University of Berkeley in California, one of the US’ top ranked centers for higher education.

GEORGIA TODAY spoke to Geof about CNF Georgia.

Tell us a little of the background of CNF in Georgia

CNF is a conservation trust fund created to safeguard the Caucasus eco-region, one of the most biologically rich and diverse areas on Earth. We provide grants to the protected areas (you can think of them as national parks) of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and build the government’s capacity to sustain the parks for future generations. Initially established in 2007 by the German Government (BMZ), Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and with only one staff member, today we are a committed team of 10 working in the Caucasus and Europe.

In Georgia, CNF gave its first grant to Borjomi Kharagauli National Park in 2009. This emergency grant supported fire equipment and vehicles, with the first three year grant agreement for Borjomi in 2010. Since then CNF has provided nearly EUR 2 million in funding to nine parks in Georgia.

There have been some changes in CNF. What are its priorities now in Georgia?

David Morrison, who headed CNF for the past eight years, has retired and is now on the CNF Board and as of April 1, 2016, I’m officially the new Executive Director (ED). In addition, and this is part of the evolution of CNF, I’ll be moving to Tbilisi in summer 2016 where I’ll be permanently based. At this stage of CNF’s life, the Board recognized that having our ED in the Caucasus would ensure the most impact.

CNF will continue its comprehensive support for our core programs - sustainable support for the operating costs (rangers’ salaries, fuel, equipment, vehicles, etc.) of parks - while deepening our long-term support for the management of planning at parks, eco-tourism, and biodiversity monitoring. Those may sound like words in a foreign language to some readers, but it simply means we work to improve the parks’ ability to provide better and more sustainable services to visitors, while protecting the flora and fauna in the parks and surrounding areas.

As an expert, how do you assess the diversity of Georgian Protected areas and national parks?

The Caucasus Ecoregion is considered one of the earth’s biodiversity hotspots according to Conservation International. There is plenty of information out there describing Georgia’s unique biodiversity, but here is a good place to start:

This hotspot has the greatest biological diversity of any temperate forest region in the world. It shelters 6,400 species of plants, at least 1,600 (25%) of which are endemic to the region, and a number of endemic animals, including 50 that are considered “threatened”, which means they have a high risk of extinction in the wild. Mammals include the iconic Caucasus leopard, but also lynx, bears and wolves, as well as unique ungulates (hoofed mammals): the Armenian mouflon, turs, the bezoar goat, goitered gazelle (ceyran) and the maral red deer. The region is also a globally important migratory corridor for birds, and there are a host of endemic reptiles and insect species.

How are Georgia’s Protected Areas faring in the struggle to protect biodiversity? What challenges remain?

There are many challenges facing the Protected Areas in Georgia and across the South Caucasus, from underfunding of the parks and staff, to threats of unsustainable land use (for example, illegal logging) and the illegal hunting of animals (poaching). The staff I met in the parks and at the Ministry are committed, but more awareness and resources need to be made available in order to ensure our children, and our children’s children can benefit from the beauty of the Caucasus’ nature. One vital challenge to address is how to ensure both people and nature thrive. This important question is the one I want to answer more than any other, and I look forward to working with a large and diverse group of people in the Caucasus to do it. This actually takes more than a village!

You recently visited Lagodekhi Protected Areas. What impact has CNF had on conservation in Lagodekhi?

I had the opportunity to accompany Lasha Moistsrapishvili (Director of Georgia’s Agency for Protected Areas) to Lagodekhi two weeks ago to meet staff – including the park director, Giorgi Sulamanidze and the head of the park administration, Natia Shalvashvili. Not only was I impressed by the staff, their knowledge of the parks and language abilities, but the services provided for adults and children are high quality. During a walk through the park, it was evident that that spring had arrived – with the sounds of rushing water, the chirping of too many birds to name, and the green buds from trees pushing out again into the world.

What are some of CNFs key local partnerships with governmental/non-governmental organizations?

Our most important partners are the governments. CNF works through public-private partnerships with the governments, which means that each side commits to long-term support for the parks. Following a “50% principle”, CNF matches but does not exceed State budgets but our contribution potentially doubles a specific park’s operating funds. We also work closely with other non-governmental organizations such as WWF and Nacres, as well as international donors such as UNDP and GIZ, and of course other German-government funded nature protection programs in the South Caucasus like the Transboundary Joint Secretariat.

What is CNF doing to promote ecotourism in the protected areas, given that development of tourism is a priority for the Georgian government?

You’re right; a priority of the Georgian government is to increase and improve tourism experiences for visitors and a question we, and they ask is – how can we do it sustainably. Ecotourism is one of the ways and we believe strongly in the importance of ecotourism – especially in the protected areas as a great source of income for the parks and local communities. CNF is currently supporting the parks to develop tourism plans and hopefully set up concessions at the parks – to provide services for tourists and as a revenue source for the parks and local businesses. In Georgia this year, we will support the development of tourism plans for the Borjomi and Javakheti Protected Areas, in collaboration with the Agency of Protected Arteas. We are also working with them and the private sector to finance and support the development of tourism infrastructure, products and services in the parks.

Are there any places in Georgia that have really taken your breath away during a visit?

I lived for a number of years in Azerbaijan managing a regional project and so I had the opportunity to travel throughout the South Caucasus. Besides the legendary hospitality of people, the thing that struck me most was the diversity of landscapes, climatic zones and colors – from the rugged red mountains in Gnishik (Armenia), to the green wetlands and arid spaces in Shirvan (Azerbaijan), to the sub-tropical magic of Mtirala (Georgia). I cannot wait to get back to the Caucasus and discover more of the natural beauty there, and lead efforts to ensure that others have access to it for generations to come. In terms of a particular place in Georgia – I can recommend just taking out a map, closing your eyes and putting your finger down somewhere! Wherever you end up will be unforgettable.

Cover photo landscape (Lagodekhi Protected Area) by: Roman Tolordava-Phototherapy

14 April 2016 19:58