Hello from the TCTeam! Wherever you are, we hope you’re doing okay. The world is changing quickly and in the Caucasus, like most places, it’s a tumultuous time. We’re thinking of our communities– here in Georgia and Armenia as well as globally– and sending our hearts to those most affected by the current public health and economic crisis.
Today we’re writing to tell you, like every other organization who has ever had a public platform, what actions we’re taking in light of COVID-19 and how this may affect our upcoming plans.
For summer 2020, we’ve made a lot of exciting plans: supporters’ treks in South Syunik, Dilijan National Park, Vayots Dzor, Svaneti, and Tusheti; international volunteer camps in Zeskho; another season of the Georgian Youth Leadership Corps; and more scouting, mapping, and outreach as we work towards our vision of a finished route.
Now, we are adapting to current social distancing policies in both Georgia and Armenia. While we haven’t yet made decisions about any of our summer programs or tours, the safety of our volunteers, trek participants, and members of the communities we work in and visit is a top priority.
We’re hopeful that at least some of our summer plans may be able to go ahead, depending on how things evolve. But we’ll continue to assess the situation, develop alternate plans where we can, and update you accordingly.
What you should know about the situation in the Caucasus
Currently, the borders of Armenia and Georgia are both closed to most non-citizens. (See official information for Armenia and Georgia.) If you are planning to come to the Caucasus from overseas, it goes without saying that right now is not the time to do so! There are also internal restrictions on movement in both countries. For reliable English-language updates on the situation, we recommend Eurasianet’s dashboard for an overview, OC Media’s daily live updates for the Caucasus, and EVN Report’s daily briefings for Armenia.
We also urge those living in the Caucasus to limit their outdoor adventures to close to home, following all local social distancing guidelines, and to take extra caution to avoid accidents that could place additional strain on the medical system. In several other parts of the world, we have seen the repercussions of large numbers of visitors on small mountain communities with limited health infrastructure. The rural areas of the Caucasus, which often have elderly populations and limited access to significant medical infrastructure, will be particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of COVID-19. Please, help protect them and stay home.
Where do we go next?
We’ve been working in rural areas of the Caucasus for four years now, and we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the growth of mountain tourism in many villages adjacent to the trail. We’ve seen guesthouses and markets spring up, guide services grow, and many families who have been able to create another income source for themselves– allowing them to stay in the village they call home, rather than migrating to a city, and to share their culture with visitors.
We are deeply concerned about the impact this pandemic will have on the tourism sector– particularly rural, small-scale tourism like we have in most of Armenia and Georgia’s wild areas. Most businesses do not have enough cash flow to see them through an entire season of no customers. The long-term impact will be highly dependent on the length of border closures and travel restrictions; should restrictions extend through the summer, we may be looking at a very different tourism industry by the end of the year. Right now, we can only cross our fingers, help where we can, and plan to be there whenever things reopen to provide the supporting trail infrastructure and to encourage people to get out into these incredible places.
If you were planning a trip to the Caucasus and are looking for ways to help those affected by the economic downturn, consider pre-booking your lodging or guiding services even if the dates aren’t yet fixed. This can help provide some preliminary income and stability to help small business owners ride out the rough times.
If you’re looking for other ways to help in the region, a few that we currently know of are the American Friends of Georgia’s COVID-19 relief fund, AFG’s partner organization’s Together for Real Change which is seeking donations to help families in Svaneti get necessary supplies, the Armenian Relief Society’s projects delivering medical supplies, and the local Red Cross organizations in Armenia and Georgia. If you know of other local organizations working on COVID-19 relief or have other ideas for creative ways we can help in the Caucasus, we’d love to hear from you.
With all this said: one bright moment for us in the current crisis has been seeing the growing number of people worldwide who (when it’s appropriate to leave their homes) are gravitating towards their nearby trails and parks. We are strong advocates of trail systems’ benefits for mental health, physical exercise, wilderness exploration, community building, quality solo time, and more. And local, less-traveled trails are also a great tool for social distancing while taking care of your physical and mental health! We’re happy to see the global outpouring of appreciation for trails and parks, and we hope that when we are safely able to move about the world again, even more people will get involved in protecting and expanding their wild landscapes and trail systems.
For us at the TCT, this is also going to be an uncertain time. Luckily, we’re all well-accustomed to riding out storms in the Caucasus (although granted, they’re usually of the lightning variety). We’re going to continue to adapt to the situation and continue to work towards our mission, whether that’s by running trail crews and treks as planned, by doing more independent scouting with our team, or by researching and mapping from home.
On that note: we are immensely grateful to each of our supporters, who have helped us achieve enough organizational sustainability to be able to continue working during these unstable times. Thank you! And if you were considering making a donation to support the TCT’s work this year, it would make a huge difference if you’d consider doing so now.
We can’t thank our community enough for its support– you are at the heart of achieving our shared vision of improving access to the Caucasus’ diverse cultural and natural heritage and encouraging its preservation.
In the meantime, as we monitor the situation over the coming weeks, we’ll continue to share some of our favorite highlights from the trail– some nice fodder, we hope, for planning future trips when we can safely explore again. The mountains will still be here, and so will we!
Stay healthy, stay hydrated, and thank you for being here with us.