Today, the tourism industry appears considerably different to that of one year ago. The outbreak of COVID-19 has created a serious challenge for the tourism sector, resulting in the global travel industry shutting down. Caucasus countries are no exception, where tourism plays an important role for the economic development and social wellbeing of the region. While this is a challenging time, it also provides an opportunity for the travel and tourism industry to develop new skills and use innovative technologies in order to position the Caucasus region as a new tourism destination.
The challenge for the Caucasus tourism sector is to make the best use of information to promote and increase the number of tourists in the Caucasus as a regional destination for rural, eco and adventure tourism. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) play a crucial role in this respect, mainly due to their potential in promoting social, economic and environmental sustainability objectives.
The new project Digital Caucasus, implemented by CENN and its partners in Armenia and Azerbaijan via a grant awarded by USAID’s E&E Bureau, Economic Development, Governance and Enterprise Growth (EDGE) Project, aims to address the above challenges in the heavily affected tourism industry and contribute to the digital transformation of SMEs for smart economic growth in the Caucasus tourism sector. In Georgia, the ‘Digital Caucasus’ project focuses on the regions of Adjara, Kvemo Kartli, Samtskhe-Javakheti, and Kakheti.
The ultimate goal of this project is to ensure the economic growth of the Caucasus tourism sector by catalyzing its digital transformation and building strong regional partnerships and new alliances between SMEs in the region. To this end, the project promotes the online presence of the Caucasus region by creating a Caucasus Tourist Destination Portal. The Project supports up to 250 SMEs from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to improve their business operations and increase their sales. Furthermore, it streamlines gender integration and women’s engagement in the tourism sector by supporting female-owned and female-managed businesses.
On September 29, CENN, with the financial support of USAID’s E&E Bureau, Economic Development, Governance and Enterprise Growth (EDGE) Project, held a kick-off event for Digital Caucasus and a thematic forum titled “Digitalization: The Driver of Growth for Caucasus Tourism Businesses.” The event was opened by CENN Executive Director, Nana Janashia, and Medea Janiashvili, Deputy Head of the Georgian National Tourism Administration.
The CENN Executive Director discussed the current challenges in the tourism industry worldwide and noted that tourism was a source of income for numerous people. However, “following the closure of borders and imposing restrictions on travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, the situation has changed drastically, showing the need for changes and innovative ideas,” she noted.
“Regarding Georgia, if we compare the current situation to the previous year, the number of international travelers has decreased by 96.4%, while the income earned from travel has decreased by approximately 78%. This crisis has shown that the transformation of tourism industry is mandatory,” Ms. Janashia said, adding that more emphasis on green tourism is crucial for the sector, in the region and globally.
The Deputy Head of GNTA, Medea Janiashvili, spoke about the visions of the National Tourism Administration and noted “the need to create ecotourism products for the development of the sector in the country and the region as a whole.” She stressed the importance of new initiatives and expressed support for the Digital Caucasus project, highlighting the significant contribution of CENN and its activities to this process and the development of ecotourism in Georgia and in the region in general.
Ana Petriashvili, CENN Project Officer, presented details of the project to the audience and noted that in these challenging times, digital transformation could serve as one of the main factors for economic development. “Considering this, positioning the Caucasus region as a unique tourist destination using modern ICT tools is one of the main directions the project focuses on,” she noted.
The kick-off event included short presentations about the project and a thematic panel discussion covering the tourism potential of the region as a unique destination, and digitalization as the driver of economic growth for regional tourism service providers. During the discussion, experts in the sector talked about perspectives of tourism development in the regional dimension, and advantages of green tourism development, and provided insight on how digital marketing can support the economic growth of SMEs involved in the tourism value chain.
Natalia Bakhtadze-Engländer, Co-founder and Consultant at the Georgian Ecotourism Association, and Lali Tevzadze, National Coordinator of the TJS program, talked about the importance of the trans-boundary tourism product, and steps taken during its development.
Tornike Guruli, Professor at Ilia State University, then presented different opportunities digital marketing can offer the tourism sector, while Rati Kochlamazashvili, Deputy Chairman of the Georgian Farmers’ Association (GFA), talked about GFA’s role in the development and promotion of Agritourism in Georgia.
Irakli Gogoladze, from the iknow company and founding member of the Georgian ICT Cluster; Guja Narimanashvili, Founder of the TravelGuide Application; and Sopo Bagauri from the Transcaucasian Trail also contributed to the event.
The event was facilitated by Ia Tabagari, Tourism analyst, and brought together service providers involved in the regional tourism value chain, public authorities and non-governmental organizations active in the sector.