Ecotourism in the North Caucasus - Who, Where and Why
Umar Aidinov
Commercial Director of the MAGTOUR company (International Academy of Alpine Tourism)

Ecotourism in the North Caucasus - Who, Where and Why

Who are those travelers who want to spend their vacations in close communion with nature? Where are they eager to go from the bustling metropolis? And most importantly, why? I asked Umar Aidinov, Commercial Director of the MAGTOUR company (International Academy of Alpine Tourism), a well-known person in the North Caucasus’ tourism community, who has been working in the tourism industry for almost twenty years, to answer these and some other questions about ecotourism.

A few words about Umar Aidinov: for 17 years, he has been professionally organizing and managing the tourism business, he is the Chairman of the Regional Public Organization “Center for the Promotion of Tourism and Sports in Karachay-Cherkessia”, a full-fledged member of the Russian Geographical Society and the Caucasian Mining Society.

He took part in dozens of mountain hiking and mountain climbing events in the Central and Western Caucasus. He organized and took part in the mountain-climbing expeditions in Elbrus (Russia), Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl (Mexico), Mytikas, Scala and Stephanie (Olympus, Greece), and Etna and Vesuvius (Italy, Sicily).

For many years, he has been developing and successfully implementing the project of the Interregional Center for Comprehensive Tourist Services, using a ‘one call does it all’ approach. 

Today, the term ‘ecotourism’ is interpreted in different ways by different specialists in different sources. Umar Aidinov highlighted two fundamental features of importance from his point of view as well as from the point of view of his colleagues in the tourism industry.

- This is tourism in the area of a natural resource, and not necessarily a reserve or any other protected area. This is any outdoor recreation in the surrounding natural landscapes, where there are no attributes of modern civilization like industry, transport, hotels, and restaurants.

- The trip itself has no man-made environmental impact. No buses, off-road jeeps, mobile diesel generators, so, people travel on foot, by bike or ride a horse only. That is, any way of traveling without doing harm to the environment and nature.

“These are the main things we rely upon. But there is a third factor, to be more precise, the purpose of this type of tourism. This is knowledge, the study of the world around you,” said Umar Aidinov.

- What can be offered to ecotourists in the North Caucasus today?

- The opportunities for ecotourism in the region are endless, including visiting the national reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks from Sochi to the Caspian Sea. In these areas, ‘closed’ to different degree, there is neither industrial activity, nor usual tourist infrastructure. Accommodation is offered at tent camping sites or glamping sites.

- Glamping sites in nature reserves? But they offer tourists a fairly high level of comfort, which implies a lot of various kinds of waste.

- As for the damage to the area, it is no different from a tent camp. Of course, it also depends on how a glamping site works. I have seen glamping sites that are not much different from tent camping sites. Only instead of a sleeping bag, a comfortable bed is offered. In a ‘correct’ glamping site, water is heated using solar-powered appliances. It also provides electricity to the glamping. Disposal of household waste is also carried out using modern technologies.

Today, Umar takes the main flow of tourists to Dagestan. “Most of our routes go through the mountains,” says he. 

- Not all of these routes can be classified as ecological ones, some of them are jeep tours (jeeping). But we also offer mountain trekking, these tours are in the Shamilsky District. Horseback riding tours are also offered in the areas still untouched by hiking tourists or the people traveling by jeeps, these areas are in the Tlyaratinsky District.

But we offer more trekking and horseback riding routes in Karachay-Cherkessia, for example, at the federal Dautsky Reserve, or to Zagedan, the realm of mountain lakes, or to the Imereti Lakes, or in the Desyatozerye area in the Arkhyz mountain area. In total, Umar named about a dozen routes offered in his native Republic.

There are good routes in Kabardino-Balkaria. As an example, Umar mentioned an Elbrus Attraction hiking route. A week-long program in which tourists travel for six days hiking in the vicinity of the Europe’s highest peak. They see the most beautiful gorges, stunning mountain rivers, lakes and waterfalls.

- Are all these trips, ecological tours just in addition to ordinary travel packages or do you offer special programs, special tours?

- Both. For example, there is a purely ecological tour to the Imereti Lakes. But of course, we bring tourists by ordinary vehicles to the point where the route stars. And then, they take a backpack and have five or six days of hiking with overnight stays in tents. They cook hot meals on portable gas stoves, which, like gas cylinders, they also carry along with them. There is the Kuban Ring route, and the travelers enjoy horseback riding along all the route. 

- Who chooses these routes? What are ecological tourists, in terms of age, social and financial status?

- These are people aged from 25 to 40 years. The youngest of them have already gone through a period when having a rest meant having a drink and partying. Their life stance is developed, they have a philosophical attitude to life. They actualized themselves, they are no longer chasing money and seeking career. They try to live in close communion with nature. They love pets and keep them at home. They also try to leave the city on weekends and spend some time in nature. Their interests are of educational nature, most of them have a sedentary lifestyle, they work sitting at a computer at their offices or at home. Those who work a 8-hour shift 5 days a week operating a machine is unlikely to be eager to go to the mountains on their vacations. During the holidays and vacations, everyone is looking for what he or she lacks in everyday life.

- How many of them travel with families?

- Actually, not many of them. Most often, they are either couples or singles. Those who come with children prefer individual programs, depending on the age and physical capabilities of their children. They prefer to stay overnight at farms. And they enjoy going for a walk around the farm. We host dozens of such families every year.

Umar offers most of their routes through the areas of Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. He believes, the mountain environment is less civilized and more natural. The mountainous regions of Ossetia are also good for such tours.


- How do the mountains in different republics of the North Caucasus differ? For example, I don’t see much difference.

- They are all different! In Karachay-Cherkessia, the mountains are of a “soft shape”, in Kabardino-Balkaria they are rocky. In North Ossetia, the mountains are more like in Kabardino-Balkaria. They are less comfortable to live there. Using the example of the North Ossetia’s Digorsky Gorge, Umar gave another option for organizing ecological tours. Tourists are accommodated in comfortable hotels and camping sites and enjoy mountain hiking.

- What should those who decide to spend their vacations enjoying an ecotourism route through the North Caucasus know and understand?

- First of all, put aside your fears associated with the perception of the North Caucasus as a very dangerous region. It is no more dangerous here than anywhere else in Russia. What do you need to be prepared for is the peculiarities of nature and climate. For example, the weather in the mountains can change several times a day. The ‘difficulties and hardships’ await you on the route. What are we talking about? There are no cafes and stalls selling fast food in the mountains. No matter how hungry you are, you will have to wait for a ‘scheduled’ rest at a stopping-place and cook hot meal. Also, the distances between stopping-places can be a dozen or more kilometers, and you have to go through very rough terrain, which requires a lot of effort and energy. Therefore, choosing such vacations, you need to realistically assess your physical capabilities and health. You need to understand that the route would pass through the wild, where you can quite unexpectedly can encounter animals, and not all of them are grazing ones.

- From what you said, I conclude that people should not start organizing ecological tours on their own, they should better take the advice of professionals.
And I made one more conclusion - ecotourism is a way to know yourself, try your strength, find out your strengths and weaknesses. It is also a way to get special, amazing experiences. And at the same time, the question is inevitable: have you ever had cases that your tourists said at the end of the trip that their expectations were not met?

- Quite the contrary: more often, I hear from the tourists that they overestimated the difficulties, that the experience was beyond their expectations. And they usually regret they didn’t do it earlier. And for many tourists, this type of recreation has become the most favorite one. I have regular clients, for example, a Moscow couple who first came to Dombay as ‘civilized’ tourists. They went camping with tents for the first time, then they came again and became keen upon mountaineering. Now, they come to the North Caucasus often and for a longer time. And part of their vacations, they go mountain hiking as they feel it’s a ‘must’. This autumn, they also came and went to the Imereti Lakes. 

- So, the last question. And who are the guides for the tourists along these eco-routes? Who are these people?

- I can only speak for my company. We arrange annual training for these people. We send only experienced guides to the ‘tent’ routes, there are few of them. This is a big responsibility, and therefore, great experience is needed. They must know the area, know nature, know how to survive in the natural environment. And at the same time, they must be good psychologists to be able to cope with a group in a difficult situation. They must have a good knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area where their routes go through. Of course, a knowledge of local endemics is mandatory. Usually, these people once used to herd sheep in the area. 

Umar Aidinov suddenly said that he grazed sheep in his childhood. And therefore, he knows very well what berry or grass can be eaten, and which one can be tasted only for the ‘first and last’ time.

And so, do you want to be in close communion with nature, feel yourself part of the nature? Do you want to know yourself, try your strength? Are you a person of unquenchable curiosity and want to be of solid health? So, ecotourism is for you.

Photo courtesy of the International Academy of Mountain Tourism