The smallest region of Georgia on the Black Sea coast covers an area roughly the size of Delhi — just above 2,000 square kilometres but only 113,000 inhabitants. With high hills and lush subtropical greenery, tiny Guria resembles the landscapes of India and Sri Lanka.
The region was traditionally a tea-growing centre that made Georgia famous as the main tea supplier for the Soviet Union until the industry collapsed along with the USSR in 1991. It has been dormant for decades, but efforts to revive traditional tea culture, supported by local authorities with assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the governments of Switzerland and Austria, are creating new attractions for tourists and income for local families.
Aleko Mameshvili, who leads the economy department in Ozurgeti, the regional centre, saw the potential for the region’s development in its traditions and authenticity.
“Guria is not only the tiniest region of Georgia, it’s also one of the most impoverished ones. But the coast in Ajara is close by, bustling with tourists and developing fast. Thinking of the opportunities for our region, we realized that we needed to lure seaside visitors to come spend some time in the green hills of Guria. And to attract visitors, we needed something really special,” Mameshvili says.
This is how the “Tea Route” was born. The project engages private tea producers in Guria who welcome guests into their homes, offer them a chance to pick tea on their farms, enjoy authentic local cuisine and learn the history of tea-growing direct from their hosts. With UNDP’s help, signs were erected to mark the route and a matching website was created to enable tourists to follow the trail. Since its kickoff in 2019, this idea has become a true success, with over 2,000 visitors knocking on the doors of the Gurian tea-growers along the route.
One of these hosts is Lika Megreladze, who welcomes guests in a 100-year-old traditional wooden house. Until recently she lived in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and was quite sceptical about the prospect of foreign visitors finding Guria exciting. It was her young daughters who returned from travels abroad confident that their ancestral home and grandmother’s cooking was exactly what the modern global tourist was seeking.
Ever since, Lika’s house “Komli” has become a landmark on the Tea Route, luring visitors with a magical tea garden, rustic sleeping options in a huge wine barrel and the corncrib, and a romantic boat ride on a nearby stream.
“The name ‘komli’ comes from the word ‘smoke,’ which in Georgian language is a synonym for a populated place, a house where people live and food is cooked, so when you see the smoke coming out of the chimney you can come in and count on hospitality,” Lika says. The name takes on added meaning, given that Guria is experiencing a rapid loss of population and particularly an exodus of young people. Fewer households keep their hearth fires burning.
The success of the Tea Route has inspired local authorities to expand the regional tourism offer by promoting less known but no less unique locations around the region through a “Discover Guria” initiative. With support from UNDP, the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure and the National Tourism Administration, Ozurgeti municipality has launched a robust information campaign to draw tourists to all the corners of the region. This includes the alluring Mount Gomi resort, a high peak surrounded by misty subtropical forests called the “world above the clouds.” The initiative has provided training and logistical support to local hosts as well as a cheerful “information centre on wheels” — a colourful branded bus that will travel along the Black Sea coast to encourage seaside visitors to visit the Gurian mountains.
“I am happy that many people will discover Guria,” says Lika Megreladze. “This gives me and other local entrepreneurs a chance to join forces to improve our region’s economic prospects.”
As with all touristic regions, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a setback to Guria and Georgia. With tourism accounting for 21.7% of GDP, Georgia is particularly vulnerable to economic shocks from COVID-19. However, the country’s success in containing the outbreak has won Georgia a reputation as a safe travel destination.
So the Gurians are growing their tea and keeping smoke in their chimneys for everyone to know they are home and awaiting guests.
Learn more about UNDP’s work for the economic development of Georgia’s regions.
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