Marta Mills on Destination Management, Marketing and Sustainable Tourism in the Caucasus

Published 12/07/2018
Marta Mills interview

Marta Mills interview

Marta Mills in this interview takes us on a tour around the Caucasus region and illustrates how countries like Georgia are taking steps towards more sustainable development of tourism. She also reflects on sustainable tourism trends and challenges, and the need for more responsibility in environmental conservation, with a focus on mountain destinations.

Marta, you describe yourself as “a well-travelled backpacker, hiker, yoga teacher and a fan of the Caucasus”. Having experienced so many places, what made you fall in love with this specific region?

I had been to over 50 countries when my friend and I decided to hike in the high mountains of Svaneti in Georgia, back in 2001. We had to travel overland across Poland, Ukraine and southern Russia for about a week which turned out to be quite stressful – the constant demands for bribes from the Russian authorities and the police were exhausting. When we finally made it to Georgia across the Black Sea, tired and not knowing what to expect, the Georgian border guards welcomed us like kings, offered wine and good food and organized a lift to the mountains. And it carried on like this: wherever we went, the local people kept offering us great food, wine and free accommodation, and we immediately fell in love with the food, wine, the Georgian hospitality and the incredible nature.

With an unusually high number of endemic plant and animal species, the Caucasus is one of the only 35 “biodiversity hotspots” in the world. The wild nature, the rich, complicated, diverse and fascinating cultural heritage and the geographical position between Europe and Asia make the region unique and enthralling. I have been to Georgia 14 times and 4 times to Armenia with 2 more trips booked already for this Autumn, and I still find something new that amazes me every time I go.

By the way, my main motivation to train as a yoga teacher came from a desire to settle somewhere deep in the Caucasus mountains and teach yoga, which I will do one day when I have a bit more time!

Your expertise as a sustainable tourism consultant spans across many areas, including sustainable destination strategies, local economic development plans and marketing and communications strategies. In your experience, are clients aware of how interconnected “tourism” is with other areas and disciplines, such as economic development?

The international donor organizations I have worked for in the Caucasus are definitely aware of this. I have recently assessed GIZ Georgia (German Development Agency) to see how tourism and other industries (the wine sector, for example) can be linked to increasing the competitiveness of the Small and Medium Enterprises, and how this would impact on the economic development of the regions.

The local governments see tourism as the main driver for local economic development, particularly in the more remote mountainous areas where tourism is becoming a key source of income. However, way too often they have no vision/strategy on how to “utilize” that growth in tourism for poverty reduction, how to ensure that it supports the local population by creating fair job opportunities now and in the years to come. They have no plans for long-term tourism, particularly for sustainable tourism where environmental, social and cultural impacts should also be taken into consideration.

Which are the main topics or concerns linked to tourism sustainability at the moment in the Caucasus region, especially Georgia and Armenia?

I do worry about the unsustainable and rapid growth of tourism in Georgia. I wrote about it for Travindy in December, questioning whether this is really that desirable?

I was speaking at the Sustainable Mountain Tourism Forum in Georgia last November and had less than 10 min to present the challenges to sustainable tourism development in the Caucasus. There are quite a few – the lack of awareness of climate change and its effects on mountain tourism; poor waste management; no consideration for the environmental and social impacts; the lack of leadership to drive sustainability – and it was impossible to fit them all in a short presentation.

So, I used these 10 minutes to challenge the audience – a range of tourism businesses, government representatives, donors, tourism NGOs – for showing little awareness, little understanding and no interest in developing sustainable tourism. I said that “the biggest challenge is to convince YOU – local tourism stakeholders – that the only option you have is sustainable tourism, and you need to work together to achieve that!”.

They need to show more commitment to the principles of sustainable tourism as the economic angle still prevails over social and environmental issues. Have systems in place to monitor and measure impacts. Do more to preserve the local heritage and biodiversity. Focus on the quality of tourists rather than increasing the quantity. And cooperate, communicate and engage all relevant stakeholders in all stages of tourism development, from planning to implementation.

These are the key topics that need to be addressed to make tourism in the Caucasus more sustainable. If not managed responsibly, the key assets – nature and culture – will be lost.

To your mind, which are the global trends in sustainable tourism?

One of the biggest trends is growth in experiential travel, specialized and educational holidays (‘learning-while-travelling’). An increasing number of travellers look for unique, exclusive, personalised and authentic experiences that will also benefit local people and enable interactions with them. They want to buy local products, stay with the local families, contribute to local social and environmental projects, actively participate in local festivals.

Growing public awareness not only of environmental issues but also of human rights and working conditions, as well as the welfare of animals in tourism, is also encouraging. This will create more and more customer pressure on travel companies and destinations to support the local people and local economy, engage in social enterprise projects and allow the customers to contribute and give back through their travel.

I also believe that safety will remain as one of the key factors in choosing a destination, regardless of the attitude to sustainability. As this useful report by the Dutch government states, geopolitical instability does not deter European travellers, but it influences their choice of destination. This is particularly important in the conflict-prone places when even a small mention of possible instability will affect visitor numbers – and something that the Caucasus tourism stakeholders should never forget about.

Together with the World Bank you are currently setting up sustainable destination management organizations in Georgia, as well as helping establish strategies for regional and national tourism marketing in the country. Can you tell us more about this work, especially how you integrate destination marketing with -management?

We are setting up DMOs in two regions, Kakheti and Imereti, the first DMOs in Georgia. Ideally, they will comprise of the members of both public and private sectors, all of them contributing resources to the DMO but also benefitting from it. The work has been very interesting because a DMO concept is new to Georgia and we are working with all stakeholders to work out the most appropriate structure for each region, the type of governance that will actually work in the local context. We explain the benefits, opportunities but also the challenges that lay ahead of each DMO.

At the same time, we have developed new marketing and branding strategies for Georgia, as well as separate ones for Kakheti and Imereti. More integrated and region-wide destination marketing is one of the key priorities for the new DMOs, and ideally, the future marketing initiatives and priorities will be decided jointly by all DMO members.

I have delivered training on sustainable tourism and sustainability criteria for destinations to the new and prospective DMO members and staff and ensured that the actions in the DMO’s Action Plans follow the principles of responsible tourism. Time will show whether they are actually followed, but I have provided the initial guidance and hope to support them as they develop over the coming months.

As an expert in mountain tourism, which are the main challenges in developing and managing e.g. alpine destinations sustainably?

I have already mentioned the key challenges linked to the lack of leadership in implementing sustainable tourism and poor cooperation between all stakeholders. In the Caucasus, I sometimes feel that the need and importance to protect and conserve the biodiversity is not a high priority for the local decision-makers who look at short-term economic gains. They take the mountains and nature for granted, without seeing the negative impact of unsustainable use of natural resources. In Svaneti, for example, 35 hydropower dams are planned to be built that will flood forests and communal lands in adjacent areas.

Additionally, there is the usual issue of human capacity: many of the local people who work in tourism in mountainous rural areas are untrained and unprepared for receiving the higher-spending and most desirable EU tourists to the standard those expect. The quality of accommodation, customer service, waste management, infrastructure and product offering needs a lot of improvement. Developing tourism products, particularly in and around Protected Areas, needs to be done responsibly with biodiversity protection in mind.

Many local people in the most touristy – but also quite remote – places, such as Svaneti, abandon their traditional jobs in agriculture and “go into tourism”, without any prior experience and basic knowledge about the industry, tourists’ expectations etc. That causes all sorts of issues, for example, problems with local food supplies or conflicts between tourists and hosts.

These are the very local and Caucasus-specific issues, but more globally, managing the effects of climate change with melting snow, retreating glaciers and unreliable weather patterns are huge challenges.

Do you have best practice examples?

As for best practice, look at central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many small destinations there promote sustainable tourism as a way of supporting local people by creating fair job opportunities, including the most disadvantaged groups. The Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan was recognised as one of the World’s Top 10 Sustainable Destinations at ITB Berlin in March for the work with the local communities and on preserving the historical heritage and natural resources of the Pamirs.

The Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association “Hospitality Kyrgyzstan” is an umbrella organisation uniting several destination communities (“CBT groups”) that trains local people in remote mountainous communities on tourism product development and helps with marketing. Its work has created new opportunities in the villages, where there was no prior tourism infrastructure.

In the Alps, many French resorts –  Châtel, Chamonix, Les Orres and others – are worth mentioning for having strategies and measures in place for effective energy and waste management, educational and environmental awareness programmes in schools and local communities, and for promoting sustainable public transport options. Arêches-Beaufort was the first municipality to subscribe to the Mountain Resorts Sustainable Development Charter and promote innovations in more sustainable snowmaking and energy sourcing.

Successful destination marketing used to be mostly about innovative, engaging campaigns and selling a destination’s offerings to potential visitors. Yet, in times of “overtourism”, it is more and more about brand stewardship and active networking internally. In your view, are DMOs prepared for this paradigm shift – ready to take on a role of facilitator and brand/destination manager, rather than “just” promoter?

What can hold DMOs back is seeing themselves as Destination Marketing Organizations, rather than Destination Management Organizations that is much more than marketing. We have put a lot of work with “our” new DMOs in Georgia to make them really understand that sustainable DMOs are not only about marketing. Their role is to link up, coordinate and manage all the elements that make up a destination (attractions, amenities, access, marketing, human resources, image/reputation and pricing).

The action plan for our DMOs in Georgia Marketing includes marketing and event management, but also training and education, product development, research and information/data management. We want to actively involve the DMOs, as well as the local population, in taking responsibility in protecting their own unique nature and culture and developing them responsibly with a long-term vision.

Effective DMOs steer the development of tourism for the whole region to improve the quality of service, increase the knowledge of their region nationally and internationally and improve its attractiveness for the visitors and investors. As long as this is done with all interested stakeholders with a focus on environmental and cultural preservation, and for the benefit both of the tourists and the local population, the DMOs are the true brand managers for their destination. And only in this way they can call themselves sustainable.

Marta Mills in the Svaneti mountains, Georgia

How important is a destination’s sustainability performance nowadays for its competitiveness?

I am a huge advocate for sustainability so for me, this is immensely important for destination’s image, reputation and attractiveness. I also believe that it will become “the competitive advantage” of destinations. It will take time but it will happen, as more and more people realize that we will have to change travel patterns and do more to preserve nature and “the authenticity” in destinations.

Much has been said about Slovenia being a sustainability leader, and rightly so. I love the fact that they have made sustainability their selling point, and they are so proud of what they do. Now and then I toy with the idea of doing an internship with the Slovenian Tourist Board, that would be an amazing experience (and I hope that Maja Pak is reading this now ?).

Ultimately, in my opinion, the sustainability performance for any destination, DMO or organization depends on its leaders – people who really “get sustainability” and drive it through the organization and are determined to implement it.

Destination marketers tend to avoid engaging with “sustainability” beyond using it for promotion aimed at specific niche markets since it is not usually part of their KPIs. Reflecting on your own experience, which advice can you share with destination marketers in terms of how to deal with sustainability?

Don’t use sustainability as a marketing tool if you don’t really do it. Greenwashing is very harmful to the tourism industry, for the organization itself, for tourists and the concept of sustainability as it creates mistrust and an excuse not to believe in the need and effectiveness of behaving sustainably.

But if you really are sustainable, communicate it using a simple language showing the tangible benefits to the customer (tourist, resident, investor, business owner). Complicated statistics charts, lots of data, academic jargon and language about “saving the planet” are great switch-off points to the customers.

Remember that – as Prof Wolfgang Strasdas said in his interview – if sustainability entails higher costs, for example by paying fair wages, or if it requires more far-reaching behavioural changes, then limits of acceptance are quickly reached, both by the tourism providers and by the tourists themselves. Education and awareness-raising about the reasons and benefits of being a more responsible tourist or resident are therefore crucial – DMOs should support any initiatives that provide regular and practical training. The local population need to understand that their unique natural and cultural assets are their unique selling points, and consequently if they lose it they will lose tourists.

And I will come back to lead one more time – to be able to “deal with sustainability”, destination marketers need to get buy-in for sustainability at the highest levels of the organization and show a real determination in pursuing their goals, as the opposition is inevitable.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

I know that I may have been quite harsh in this interview on tourism decision-makers and other stakeholders in Georgia. I talked a lot about the challenges. But there are also many positive developments. And there are enough caring and ethnically-motivated people who want to preserve the region’s rich and unspoiled natural and cultural heritage.

And although I am watching the rapidly growing numbers of tourists to Georgia with concern, and am trying to convince the tourism planners to favour quality over quantity and focus more on the environmental protection, I know how important it is for the local populations in the mountains to receive tourists. It is an absolutely fascinating place on Earth that is worth exploring, and if anyone is prepared to step off the beaten track a bit, they can still have the experience of the incredible hospitality, bizarre unforgettable adventures and the most pristine nature I had back in 2001.

Thank you, Marta.

Marta’s articles on sustainable tourism here. More about her work as a consultant here. Connect with Marta Mills on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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