Travel And Tour World – What is the TransCaucasian Trail?
Marta Mills: The TransCaucasian Trail (TCT) is a new, world-class long-distance hiking trail being built across the Caucasus Mountains that will connect roughly two dozen national parks and protected areas in the region.
The TCT will consist of two intersecting trail corridors, each roughly 1500 km long. East to west corridor will connect the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and the other, north to south, will connect the Greater Caucasus and the Lesser Caucasus. The TCT is being built in Georgia and Armenia, with plans to extend it to Azerbaijan.
Travel And Tour World – What strategies are you undertaking to develop the Transcaucasian Trail?
Marta Mills: TCT will be built in several phases, each phase focusing on trails in specific regions. The first section in northern Georgia (Svaneti) is already open and takes about 10 days to hike.
There are various interlinked stages of the TCT development: scouting (which involves spending weeks in the wilderness of the Caucasus to try out many potential routes, and choosing the best one where the trail will be built); mapping it all in detail; planning (with numerous consultations with local communities and other organizations to build the support for the project and ensure the local participation in it); actual building (with local and international volunteers); and managing and maintaining it.
So the strategy for each stage requires establishing partnerships and working with the local stakeholders, fundraising, communicating our work and promoting the TCT through a range of channels and to different audiences.
Travel And Tour World: How can you make the TransCaucasian trail easily accessible to millennial travellers?
Marta Mills: Millennials wish to have ‘physical experiences in authentic places’ and desire adventure holidays. We recognize that this is a continually increasing market and can assure any millennial traveler that hiking on the TCT is a fantastic adventure that will not disappoint them.
The unspoilt nature, rich cultural heritage, diverse traditions and rituals, unique ancient architecture, cuisine and wine, and incredible hospitality and warmth of the local people guarantee to provide authentic experiences young travellers crave for.
The trail will pass through a diverse range of natural and cultural landscapes from the glaciated peaks and dense forests of Georgia, guarded by ancient defensive towers, through ancient villages and the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, to the high volcanic plateau of Armenia, home to some of the oldest Christian churches in the world (dating back to the 6th century). Tourists are likely to get invited for some fresh local food and drink by the villagers anywhere along the TCT.
I have hiked in the Caucasus for 16 years and often feel as if time has stopped decades ago and it is just me and the nature around me.
Also, it is worth mentioning that we are working on very detailed maps and digital guides that will be available to everyone, and ensuring that trekking is safe, which supports independent self-guided exploration relevant to a millennial traveller.
Travel And Tour World: How do you plan to introduce community-based tourism in this region?
Marta Mills: Engaging with the local people and ensuring that they will benefit from the growth in tourism is one of our priorities, as it is crucial for sustainable tourism development that we want to encourage and support. We understand that we cannot do it alone and need to work closely with various partners, and with the communities, to ensure that their voices are heard and their needs are met.
We are hoping to secure funding that will allow us, for example, to provide hospitality and language training for the locals interested in tourism. There is a huge potential for a successful community-based tourism development in the region, but it needs to be done responsibly, ensuring that the locals are included, consulted and involved in the whole process from the beginning and throughout.
Travel And Tour World: What measures would you adopt to ensure that sustainable tourism is integrated in this landscape?
Marta Mills: Our mission is to make hiking in the Caucasus safer and more accessible to everyone while increasing economic opportunities for local communities and protecting the environment.
In June 2016, the TCT team have conducted the first-ever community consultation for a tourism project in Georgia. We spent two weeks in Svaneti (where the trail was going to be built over the summer) getting the approval for the TCT building from the local people and discussing the benefits but also the challenges caused by the growth of tourism in remote areas. We will continue to engage the local people in TCT development – this is one of the key elements of sustainable tourism that our project aims to help develop in Georgia and Armenia in order to maximize the positive and minimize the negative impacts of tourism.
It is worth remembering that nature trails play an important role in protecting the natural environment. We are designing the route to provide the most interesting, deep and authentic experience for the TCT users, who can admire both the natural and the rich cultural heritage of the region (for example, churches dating back to the 6th century). Research proves that visitors, in turn, learn to appreciate better the natural environment and are therefore more willing to protect it and behave more responsibly.
Also, there are examples in the academic literature that getting children to use nature trails, instills within them a sense of respect and care for the environment.
Travel And Tour World: How would you promote trekking tourism in the Caucasus Mountains?
Marta Mills: We believe that by promoting the TCT and our work on the trail, we are encouraging both local and international hikers to go to the Caucasus.
We are active on social media and keep providing regular updates.
In 2016, we also launched a new, innovative way of promoting the TCT through the TransCaucasian Expedition – our team in scouted and mapped 75% of the TCT route in Armenia. The team’s route and progress of their work was easily trackable on the newly-created TransCaucasian Expedition official website with a live map and links to numerous social media channels.
Travel And Tour World: Tell us about your growth policies for 2017.
Marta Mills: Last summer, following the community consultation I mentioned earlier, we built the first section of the TCT in Svaneti, with the help of local and international volunteers. We have also scouted the southern part of the TCT in Armenia. In 2017, the TCT will continue building in Svaneti and in Dilijan (Armenia) – we will be running camps for volunteers there.
More community consultations are planned to ensure the local people understand the benefits and the impact of the trail.
Everything will continue to be mapped in detail and the data will be added to OpenStreetMap gradually, making it available to everyone to use, providing a tangible solution to the lack of reliable mapping in the Caucasus.