Can Trail Tourism Really Offer A Viable Alternative Income For Rural Communities?

As I stuffed the last bag of food into my pack, slung it over my back, and locked Georgina’s doors, it occurred to me that this would be the first unsupported multi-day hiking foray of the Transcaucasian Expedition.

Until now, our daily routine had consisted of either vehicle-driven research or single-day scouting forays on foot which always ended with a rendezvous at our beloved Landy.

But unsupported exploration has been my bread and butter for years. Not just that, but I was excited at the prospect of heading out into the backcountry to trek in the manner I hoped one day the users of the Transcaucasian Trail would have. We would be beta-testing the kind of experience we came here to design.

The pre-dawn light grew stronger as we marched into the forest. The wilderness beckoned, and a thrill ran through me.

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The route I wanted us to follow had been designed over the previous few days – a mixture of local knowledge, the expertise of our friends in the guiding world, satellite imagery, and old Soviet-era mapping. These sources had provided a foundation of potential routes; and the varied concerns of the Transcaucasian Trail vision – plus a big dose of intuition on my part – had informed the decisions about which routes to try first. Over the course of the year, I had focused ever more on doing what I knew best: exploring, navigating and operating in the backcountry, and using the space created by my familiarity with that environment and the cultural context of the Caucasus to think about how an experience might feel to someone coming here for the first time.

I was increasingly happy to leave other aspects of the complex job to people better suited to them. Thus had Alessandro spent increasing amounts of time digitally mapping the regions through which we passed, and Vahagn had taken the lead when interacting with locals (something development professionals would probably call ‘community engagement’ but which was really just making friends and swapping phone numbers).

Sometimes, if he felt it appropriate, Vahagn would also – gently – sow the seeds of an idea to bring a few more visitors to these remote communities. This was welcomed unanimously, Armenian hospitality having a distinctively Middle Eastern warmth and eagerness to it. And in this way, we had built up a database consisting of hundreds of contacts from all over the Caucasus, as well as adding thousands of new tracks and points of interest to our map of the region. It has become increasingly obvious that this database of hard-won research will not just be the final product of the expedition but the very foundation on which to build the trail network we all dream of – a task whose magnitude we are increasingly convinced will be measured in decades, not months or years.

The forest was damp and cool and quiet – perfect hiking conditions. Occasionally we’d spot a solitary tree whose leaves had already turned bright yellow, overzealous in its desire to express the changing of seasons we could now feel in the air. The trail we were on was a well-known historical route that followed the contours of the Sarnajur river valley through thick forest. Indeed, it was one of the routes commissioned by the Armenian government to be added to WikiLoc. Titled in Armenian and with no trail description and no waymarks on the ground, the government dollars, it seemed, had been spent exclusively on a line on a GPS unit screen in an area with notoriously patchy GPS signal – an impressively effective attempt by the state to send hapless tourists to get lost in a forest whose locals the emergency services would then call upon to go and rescue said tourists in a fabulous demonstration of How To Do Hiking Development Wrong.

Emerging from the woods further up the valley, we were treated to a panoramic display of tectonic grandeur, limestone cliffs rising into the sky in all directions, with our trail heading from the valley floor, out of the forest and up the open hillsides where villagers were collecting the last of the hay and loading it into the massive Soviet-built trucks. It was late in the day when we reached the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Road; an impressive sounding name for a dirt track along the ridge that connected the Lori and Tavush provinces. The road had at one time represented an alternative route to the frontier with Azerbaijan; now it seemed a perfect conduit for jeep, mountain bike and hiking adventures. With the sun setting, we called upon the occupants of a tumbledown hamlet to buy the homemade cheese and yoghurt we knew they’d have in abundance. As we negotiated their refusal to accept money for the produce, they suggested that we occupy one of the nearby empty houses for the night – an offer we were glad to accept.

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The following day, we really got to see what Raffi (our cultural adviser in Armenia) meant when he said that Tavush would be muddy. Here, road maintenance in remote regions means nothing more than taking a bulldozer through once every few years to flatten out the ruts; there’s no attention at all paid to drainage, which means that in the wetter, more heavily forested regions of the country, tracks soon become impassable in all but the most heavy-duty of 4×4 trucks. Woe betide the hiker who expects to have a pleasant experience following these tracks – particularly at the height of wood-gathering season, as rural folk from miles around scour the forests for fallen logs to saw and chop up and heat their homes over winter, churning the tracks up beyond recognition in the process.

An alternative hiker-friendly route to Kirants monastery was clearly needed. The main church of the complex dates back to the 8th century and is one of the most unique medieval buildings in the country on account of its brick & mortar construction. Being so remote and inaccessible by regular vehicles, it attracts relatively few visitors; a prime candidate for inclusion on the Transcaucasian Trail in order to boost visitor numbers and spur on a more concerted preservation effort.

And it turned out that an alternative route away from Kirants was needed too. While the valley that housed the complex was a delightful patch of old-growth forest to play in, the disused and eventually non-existent trail on which we found ourselves bushwhacking and clambering out of it was not exactly a viable hiking route. As was now customary for our first-pass scouting forays, we made a note to return for a second pass and find a better trail – as if we needed an excuse to return and explore more of this wonderful wilderness.

I navigated through the bush to a spur on whose ridge which I guessed it would be possible to ascend above the treeline and get our bearings. The Soviet maps also showed a scattering of buildings close to the edge of the forest a couple of kilometres distant. Our hopes that the summer settlement would still be inhabited were fulfilled as a pair of shepherds waved us over, and we spent a pleasant hour watching the sun go down with them, spending the night in one of the tiny homes they inhabited. They had just a couple of weeks left up here until they moved back to their winter homes in villages along the war-torn frontier we now watched sinking into the twilight to the east, the streetlights of Azerbaijani towns and cities on the far side of the border beginning to peer through the silent gloom.

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Now we were deep in the folds of the mountains, elevations growing higher, sightings of people less and less frequent, electricity and phone signal a distant memory. Not a paved road existed for several hours’ drive in each direction; the tiny clusters of huts we occasionally passed through were surely some of the most remote settlements in all of Armenia.

The exuberance of the hospitality that awaited us spoke of the near-complete absence of any kind of visitor, let alone foreign. Even Vahagn, an experienced traveller himself, could not believe that places like this existed in his home country.

Indeed, this winding trek through the forgotten pastures and hillsides of central Tavush, we both decided, was one of the most memorable of all our experiences exploring and mapping the Caucasus this year. And it would continue to be so for several more days, during which we covered roughly 100km of trail.

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There was a bittersweet ending to our trek, which in all other aspects really did resemble the kind of rewarding, exploratory journey I hope hikers to one day experience on the Trail.

First, Vahagn slipped and landed badly on a sharp rock, cutting open his kneecap and badly bruising the joint. He heroically hobbled onwards until we were picked up close to the main road by a family of herders moving from their mountain shelter to their winter home. It would be three weeks before he could hike again.

Secondly, both Vahagn and I were delivered a stark reminder of what is at stake in this country if sustainable alternative income sources for rural communities are not found.

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It had been my intention to descend from the mountains to the town of Shnogh, passing close to a village called Teghut. This was a village I had visited almost nine years ago during the early days of my time in Armenia, when I found myself by chance associating with a marginalised group of Yerevan-based environmental activists. The region around Teghut, at that time, was in the crosshairs of Vallex Group, a mining multinational who had acquired the rights to dig a enormous open pit mine, expanding their already significant copper and molybdenum mining operations in Armenia which had previously been blamed for (among other issues) a dramatic rise in birth defects. The activists’ message was simple: why is unemployment driving environmental destruction when ecotourism could provide far less damaging opportunities for those with no or limited income?

The message, it turned out, was too simple. Nothing changed in Teghut. Then, while the environmentalists’ backs were turned, Vallex quietly began operations in Teghut. Today, unseen on outdated satellite imagery, the new mining operation dominates the landscape – not just the open pit itself but the enormous lake of ‘tailings’, a by-product of ore extraction and refinement, and the refinery buildings themselves, not to mention the billboards depicting happy-looking families alongside corporate logos that can be found in every village. Not long after beginning our descent into the valley, we found ourselves hiking alongside a tall metal security fence built around the thousands of acres of land occupied by the mine. And everyone we spoke to in a radius of a twenty or so kilometres of Teghut now worked, one way or another, for Vallex.

While it’s not within my area of expertise to comment at length on the mining operation and its environmental and economic consequences, I can say one thing with certainty: the potential of Teghut for ecotourism is lost. I can say this because I, as a trail designer, will not route hikers within sight of an industrial abomination that sits upon that landscape like a tumour. The Transcaucasian Trail will eventually lead elsewhere – another valley, another set of villages, another series of communities that will be offered the opportunity to take ownership of a means of income that might sustain them indefinitely, not just until the metal reserves run dry and the foreign investors disappear.

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What happened? Why didn’t the activists’ arguments work? Was it easier, back then, simply to entertain the urge to fight, rather than to offer an actual, concrete alternative? In any case, the evidence is clear: turning up and shouting about ecotourism wasn’t enough, and the fight was lost.

Can trail tourism really offer a viable alternative? Is it too much to hope for in a political and economic climate such as this?

The mining corporation companies aren’t done with Armenia – and nor are we. So my guess is that only time will tell.