Tourism in the South Caucasus

As the South Caucasus has emerged as a world player in the years following its independence from the Soviet Union, the region has actually been investing in it’s tourism sector. Travelers from all over the world can experience a unique blending of Asian and European cultures packed into beautiful natural landscape.

A map of Transcaucasia showing the three capital cites that I will be mentioning later in the post. Map by Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC

For those unaware of the geographical location of the South Caucasus, it’s situation in between the Black and Caspian Seas and is made up of the three countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Of the three, Georgia’s tourism sector has been growing rapidly through many foreign investments and infrastructure development.

I want to briefly discuss the natural landscape of the region, as it alone is enough to pull travelers from all over the world. Containing the South Caucasus mountain range and plenty of water all around, it presents adventurers a plethora of hikes, views, features, and varied climates. Plus, it’s beautiful.

Not only is the region beautiful, but it is rich in cultural and linguistic diversity. The region contains more than 40 ethnic groups and 50 languages, ranging from small indigenous language families to wider Indo-European families. Theres diversity in religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism), geography (deserts, mountains, shoreline, glaciers), history, and culture.

Photo from GeoCurrents

Because the region is quite small, about the size of the UK, travelers are able to hit all three countries in one trip. And you’ll want to, too, because this part of the world is so incredibly diverse. Azerbaijan alone supports 9 out of the 12 climate zones. Because of the broken up landscape of the mountains, there is a rich history of ancient tribes and clans spread around the terrain.

History of Caucasian Tourism

Tourism has been a major part of the economy of each of these countries individually and as a region since the beginning , successfully marketing themselves as a destination. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, tourism was planned and monetized by a state-owned agency called Intourist, which arranged all the bookings and packages including lodgings and itineraries.

Travel poster produced by the agency Soviet Intourist. Photo by the Boston Photo Library

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the periods of unrest surrounding it led to a standstill of the tourism industry in 1991. This lead to a reorganization of the tourism infrastructure in place. Each country created individual state-owned departments in charge of tourism but in actuality, there has been little changed from the Soviet era besides the name.

The weakness of these institutions and lack of expertise does not define the current development of this sector, although, as foreign investment has gained drastically. I’ll cover a bit about the three capitals here, each with a unique culture and attractions that make this part of the world so intriguing to the adventurer.

Below is a map displaying tourism in this region as a percentage of GDP.

https://arcg.is/DDXfa

Tbilisi, Georgia

The capital city of Georgia is a beautiful city architecturally that has grown tremendously in the last few decades. To aid in the development of their tourism sector, Georgia’s government has made it easier to obtain a visa, began a road rebuilding program, privatized infrastructure and hotels, and but tax incentives in place for tour operators.

One major site is the Narikala Fortress, an ancient castle that overlooks the city of Tbilisi and the Mtkvari River. Founded in the 4th century, it consists of two walled structures between suplhur baths and a botanical garden. No one leaves the country without walking around inside the crumbling fortress. You can feel the history of the city in it’s walls.

The Narikala Fortress overlooking the capital city of Tbilisi. Photo from Georgia About

The city’s culinary scene could be argued as one of the most underrated, with flavors from the Mediterranean and Greece as well as Persian and Turkish influences. You’ll find quite a few food tours around the city and it’s popular with tourists.

Overall, Tbilisi has much to offer to the tourist and is one of the most intriguing cities of the Southern Caucasus region.

Yerevan, Armenia

Mount Ararat and the Yerevan skyline. The Opera house is visible in the center. Photo from Serouj Ourishian.

I want to mention here that the whole region, although technically part of Asia, feels much more European in style and culture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the three countries tried to distance themselves from Russian rule and establish themselves with more Western influences.

Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan is no exception to this and presents a beautiful city with much tourism infrastructure in place. There is a busy culinary scene and a lively culture of contradictions – the new next to the old and teahouses next to hipster bars.

The Armenian Genocide Memorial, featuring cleaning lady. Photo by DarkTourism.

But I would say that the most compelling part of this country, what I would want to learn about the most in this city, is its rich history. The Armenian genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Turks is a defining trait of the people here.

On the Tsitsernakaberd hill south of the centre of the city , there’s a genocide museum and a national monument, where you can learn about this history.

Baku, Azerbaijan

At more than 90 feet below sea level, Baku is the lowest lying national capital in the world. Photo by Eric Nathan/Alamy Stock Photo

Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku is extremely modern with a very well development tourism. It’s culture is more similar to Turkey than the other two countries and its a secular Muslim country with wealth developed from it’s oil production.

Boyukdash Mountain, upper terrace, Ana-zaqa cave. Photo by Farid Mamedov

One site to mention is the Gobustan National Park, home to over 6,000 rock sites that date back to the Neolithic era some 40,000 years ago. The site also contains remains of uninhabited caves, settlements, and burials that reflect the lives of humans during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.

Another popular tourist site is the Fire Temple of Baku. This was a place of sacrifice founded above a natural gas vent and, as a result, ignites a large flame in the middle and four smaller flames on the rooftop corners of the pavilion.  The complex was turned into a museum in 1975, and in 1998, it was nominated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Overall, there is much to see at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. I’ll end with this quote I really enjoy from Lonely Planet’s description of the region –

Breathtaking natural beauty, deeply hospitable people, quaint rural backwaters and cosmopolitan capitals together make the South Caucasus region a thrilling, offbeat discovery.

lonelyplanet

Credits

“12 Things You Should Know Before Travelling to the Caucasus.” Wander-Lush, 30 Sept. 2018, wander-lush.org/travel-tips-caucasus-georgia-armenia-azerbaijan/.

“Armenia.” Dark Tourism, http://www.dark-tourism.com/index.php/armenia.

“REGIONAL STUDY ON COMMUNITY BASED TOURISM IN THE CAUCASUS.” World Bank, web.worldbank.org/archive/website00502/WEB/PDF/REGION-2.PDF.

“Travel in the Caucasus — Where East Meets West.” Wild Junket Adventure Travel Blog, 18 May 2018, http://www.wildjunket.com/travel-in-the-caucasus/.Ugc.

“Fire Temple of Baku.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 11 Oct. 2011, http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/fire-temple-of-baku.

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