By Giga Chikhladze from Borjomi
Borjomi – a small dusty town surrounded by mountains and split by a river Mtkvari. While approaching the town, one sees high mountains, covered by green co! at of pines, which look like toy trees from such distance. In old times this was a favorite place for rest and recreation of the aristocracy of the Russian empire. The resort has quite many visitors at present too, but tourists these days come only from Tbilisi. However Borjomi is not regarded only as a resort in last years.
The word “Borjomi” is generally associated with an icy bottle, full of sparkling mineral water. Although some might recall scandalous facts of falsifying this product and some – dispute around laying the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline through Borjomi valley, and hardly would anyone talk about a lovely resort town or even a great ecological project – Borjomi-Kharagauli national part. However, who knows, if not the mineral water, there would have been no parks or resort. So may be it is right to put the water issue above all others.
According to archeological findings, the mineral water has been known in the ancient ! times. However this mineral resource gained biggest popularit! y only in XIX century. That time Borjomi has become a favored resort of the Russian and Georgian aristocracy. The emperors themselves have spent summers in this town, making it famous throughout Europe.
Among eight main tourist routes in the Borjomi-Kharagauli national park one is called “Path of Emperor Nikolai I”. It is believed that he has liked to walk this path – from Likani village up to the mountains – over and over again. Now there is a ranger hut and a tourist inn along the route.
The project of the Borjomi-Kharagauli national park was initiated in 1994: the project was submitted to the government by WWF. In 1995 the project was approved. In 1997 the German government decided to finance creation of the national park. Beginning from 1999 the German side has spent 2.5 million DM for the park and 16.68 million DM for the auxiliary zone between 1999-2003.
Despite some progress, appearance of the city hardly has any trace of s! uch investment. You would see the same old houses, broken roads and grass growing on the sidewalks.
The city has plenty of cafes and bars, but most of them are open only during “the season” – from June to September. In other months it is really hard to find a dining place in Borjomi. By the way, I have found that local cooks love pepper, but somehow do not like putting salt in dishes.
Borjomi does not lack hotels as well. The old ones are fully occupied by displaced persons from Abkhazia, but some rooms are still available for tourists. There also are some smaller private hotels in the city. But, judging from the prices, they are mostly oriented on foreign customers, or so called “new Georgians”. But the State Residence complex in (the locals still call it the old, soviet-style name “4th department”) is always ready to accept guests for quite acceptable price of 40 Lari per day (USD 18), but only when the President is no! t using the residence. During the recent years he has been fa! voring Likani more than Borjomi.
In Borjomi one would immediately feel proximity to the national park – many locals wear hats and t-shirts with the national park logos. While entering the city, the park is seen on the right side – it is directly adjacent to the city and occupies the whole right-hand part of the valley.
The best way to know something interesting in an unfamiliar place is to talk with drivers. So the first thing I did upon arriving to Borjomi – caught a taxi, drove around the city and knew plenty of quite curious news.
“Foreign [tourists] come here more and more often, especially after the national park was opened,” says Sergo, who has been a taxi driver for 17 years.
“But there is very little benefit for us. Perhaps the only good thing about the foreigners is that some hotels and restaurants will gain a bit more money. It is really hard to believe our mayor, who claims that very soon we will witn! ess a tourist boom. We will never have anything like we had in Soviet times. Those days we indeed had hordes of tourists. They were spending so much money here! Those times nobody would imagine that somebody will be unemployed here,” Sergo said.
Now locals in Borjomi favor the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, for, first of all it gives a hope to find a job again with stable and high salary – the biggest deficit in the country, and secondly – the pipeline is a hope for a new big inflow of money.
“They’ll buy our land to build the pipeline on it,” says Avto, a microbus driver. “So those people, who will have the pipeline built on their lands, will indeed hit the big time. They’ll probably get enough money to leave even for their grandchildren. Pipeline is a serious business! People say our region will gain really plenty of money from it, much more than we will ever get from the national park,” he added.
You will hear many good words about the park as well. “! ;It might seem unbelievable, but since the park was founded many things have improved here,” says Ramaz, a Borjomi resident – “schools and roads are repaired all over the region. Now I can visit my relatives in the remote villages more frequently. I could not go to their places before, because the roads were just impassable”.
Tourist trip to the Borjomi-Kharagauli national park costs much less than in any similar European park. Entrance is free and overnight stay in any of four tourist inns costs less than USD 5 per person. There are also 9 ranger huts, where tourists can stay for night as well, if they just can’t make it to the inns. A night in an own tent would cost mere USD 2.5 per tourist. The visitors can also hire a guide for USD 10 a day.
National parks throughout the world use from 2 to 10 percents of their incomes for rehabilitation purposes. Administration of the Borjomi-Kharagauli Park has not faced such problems so far,! however. Perhaps in the future, when the number of tourists will increase, ecologic rehabilitation might become the issue for the park, but for now there is no need to bother about such things.
“We need exactly this type of park to develop eco-tourism and preserve unique natural resources,” says Zviad Gotsiridze, director of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park and adds that implementation of the project would have been impossible without assistance of the WWF and the German government.
Borjomi-Kharagauli national park has topped agenda of the WWF Caucasus representation for many years. Now, when the project is successfully implemented, the WWF employees have a well-deserved right to be proud of what they have accomplished. Activities on the auxiliary zone still continue, however.
Actually, it would be much more proper to use the term “buffer zone” instead of “auxiliary zone”, the park administration says. “This! is a marginal area, directly adjacent to the park. Tourist w! ill be visiting not only the park itself, but also the buffer zone, were we want to create a full range of tourist infrastructure”.
Area of the national park includes 6 administrative units of the country and occupies 5,3 thousand square kilometers, or 7,6% of the total territory of Georgia. It also has a number of historic architectural monuments, such as churches, monasteries, fortresses etc.
Borjomi-Kharagauli national park is a first one of its kind in the Caucasus and one of the biggest national parks in Europe. Its particular uniqueness is diversity of geographical and ecological zones, landscapes, historical monuments and rich flora and fauna.
There were 15 natural reservations in Soviet Georgia. Today there are 19, plus Borjomi-Kharagauli Park. It is estimated that for 2010 total area of the natural reservation will reach 30% of the country’s total territory. Experts believe that this will serve as a major booster for the profitable tou! rist business in Georgia. According to the preliminary calculations, in case of intensive inflow of tourists to the park and its auxiliary zone, up to 5000 local residents will be employed in the tourist business.
Nowadays the park has 8 tourist routes, which can accommodate 400 tourists every day in total. Each route differs by its difficulty and length– it may take from one to five days to take the tour. The routes are planned in the way that after passing several main tracks, a tourist will have full idea of diversity of the landscape, endemic flora and fauna of the park.
“I hope that a tradition of spending a weekend in the nature and particularly in our park will become widely spread in Georgia. We will do everything we can for this, and I have no doubts that in time we will be hosting big number of foreign tourists as well,” says Zviad Gotsiridze, director of the National Park.