Shatili’s UNESCO Status in Limbo as Preservation Concerns go Unaddressed

Shatili has languished on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites for 12 long years. In the meantime, tourist visits to the site have skyrocketed. New guesthouses open every year. Tours promising the full medieval experience place photos of the internationally famous fortress village front and center. With only four hours needed from Tbilisi, a trip up to Shatili makes for the perfect overnight adventure for anyone aching to take in mountain panoramas and ancient vistas with less than 24 hours to spare.

According to local residents, twenty years ago tourists in Shatili were unknown. Tourists did not start coming in large numbers until a few years ago, they said, but now the tourist season starts earlier and ends later every year.

Yet locals are more positive about the changes than one might expect. Tourism has opened many new opportunities for local people in an area that has traditionally relied on farming in difficult conditions. Many Shatili folk who had moved down to the lowland are able to return for much of the year to earn extra income.


Shatili remains unprotected by any official designation or international recognition from bodies like UNESCO, the branch of the United Nations devoted to ensuring the world’s unique sites of cultural heritage are preserved and properly managed.

According to locals, the condition of Shatili’s towers are increasingly a cause for concern and many are liable to collapse. Such incident are most likely to occur in the spring, after a winter of freeze-and-thaw cycles followed by heavy rains. Visitors are also free to climb in and out of towers and little information is available at the site about their history, structure, or traditional use. Unstable structures also present safety hazards for visitors. “They go in,” one local said, “not realizing they are so unstable.”

According to the locals, after a poorly implemented tower restoration project many years ago, changes to the roofs caused water to pool rather then drain at the corners. Now water runs down the walls, eroding clay and undermining structural integrity. “They get worse every year,” one young man said. “If they don’t fall, you’ll take a look, and there is another crack.”


Khevsureti’s growing popularity as a tourist destination offers livelihood opportunities for local residents to act as guides, drivers, guesthouse hosts, and work in restaurants and stores. As was recognized by the World Bank’s 2016 SESCHA (Strategic Environmental, Social and Cultural Heritage Assessment) report, “harnessing the tourism potential of [the Mtskheta-Mtianeti] region would help to provide job opportunities particularly in mountainous areas and to support rural populations, balancing migrations to the lower plains.”

The tourism industry continues to be the fastest growing sector in the Georgian economy with an incredible annual growth rate of 17.6%, according to the 2017 government GNTA report. While no estimation of the number of visitors to Khevsureti has been recorded, visitor numbers to protected areas like the Pshav-Khevsureti Protected Area have been in sync with these impressive growth rates, according to the report.

Economic growth in Khevsureti has not been experienced equally. Shatili, for example, offers 16 guesthouses, 60% of Khevsureti’s total number of guesthouses according to internet listings, making for an overnight capacity of approximately 300 visitors. By comparison, the villages next in total guesthouse numbers are Korsha and Barisakho, which contain only three guesthouses apiece.

While the World Bank report touts the cultural heritage of the region as a tourist honeypot of job creation, it also warns that ramping up tourism comes with significant risks. Those identified in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region were:

1) Little attention is given to carrying capacity of the advertised sites

2) Management plans are not required or used

3) Saturation will lead to a negative impact on visitor experience and harm the heritage sites.

The report notes that natural and cultural resources are “in a need of restoration and conservation,” and that past projects for restoration of historical monuments had resulted in “controversial outcomes.” It advises that a “cautious approach is required to the restoration works to be undertaken on the historic monuments of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region.”


Khevsureti does enjoy protected status as part of the Pshav-Khevsureti Protected Area region. This privileged status results in more serious fines for illegal hunting and logging activities in the area. Initiatives targeting the preservation of cultural heritage or the implementation of management plans for sustainable use have remained minimal.

A tower that was being converted into a guesthouse collapsed in 2017 but was restored the following year by a private company in consultation with the National Agency of Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia. The rehabilitation sought to use the original stones, while the collapse was attributed to improper drainage issues.

The most significant development initiative in the area recently has been the 5-year Support Program for Protected Areas in the Caucasus (SPPA), which is set to close out this year. This EUR 8.25-million program was funded and partially implemented by organizations like the German KFW Development Bank in partnership with Georgian government agencies. In Khevsureti, SPPA’s efforts have included environmental protection workshops and contests to help locals increase guesthouse capacities. These efforts did not include steps to ensure sustainable use of cultural heritage resources or mitigate threats like those identified by the World Bank Report.


For over a decade, Shatili has been touted as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site and has sat on UNESCO’s tentative list. Popular Georgian and international travel sites bandy about its UNESCO association as part of their promotional material, as will be found in entries on,,,, to name a few. Many of these incorrectly assert that Shatili has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A disclaimer on the UNESCO site makes clear that inclusion on the tentative list does not indicate any protective status, integrity of the item, or recognition by UNESCO: on the contrary, a spot on this list should only be considered an expression on intent of the respective country’s plan to secure UNESCO recognition of the site.

Tentative UNESCO status for a cultural heritage site is only the very first step in a long process. The next step toward recognition is an intense nomination process which, if pursued immediately, takes about 1.5 years and requires the country to create detailed plans for “adequate protection and management systems to ensure a properties [sic] safeguarding.” The UNESCO guidelines state that “very high standards are required in this area. The Inspectorate looks closely at legal framework, designation, ownership, commitment of resources, management philosophy, and effectiveness of on-the-ground measures and public access.”

The proposal for UNESCO recognition was originally submitted in October of 2007 by the Ministry of Culture, Monuments Protection and Sport of Georgia. This ministry has since undergone several dissolutions and merges, most recently in 2018 when it became part of the Ministry of Education and Science.

While the reason for Shatili’s languishing seniority on the tentative list has never been officially commented upon, the submission document itself suffers from worryingly scant detail and accuracy. Most submissions listed on UNESCO’s site run several pages, however the description of Shatili is only 256 words and is limited to the most general descriptions of the site, such as its location, and a short blurb describing its original defensive and residential functions.

The document also claims that the authenticity of Shatili has been completely preserved in its “architectural forms, materials, location and other necessary attributes,” but this claim is becoming less accurate by the year as the towers continue to degrade under a lack of management plans and are restored ad hoc by private companies.

As things stand, prospects for Shatili to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site are not great. Not only is the 2007 proposal skimpy and uninformed, but the acceptance of the proposal to the tentative list is only the first and easiest step in a long process.

The name UNESCO itself carries authority: by having a proposal on UNESCO’s tentative list of heritage sites, one can easily misconstrue UNESCO’s level of involvement with Shatili. Unfortunately, UNESCO may unintentionally undermine its own mission: raising the profile of Shatili as a potential World Cultural Heritage site in the context of the area’s rapidly growing tourism industry increases traffic to a sensitive area with vulnerabilities that continue to go unaddressed.

The implementation of SPPA’s five-year work plan, available at, began in 2014. It includes under item “1.1.6” plans to conduct a “comparative analysis/assessment for nomination of World Heritage Site under UNESCO's convention.” If the nomination process for UNESCO recognition has commenced, this information has not yet been made public. As the SPPA program is set to end this year, observers interested in Shatili’s future should pay special attention to the SPPA program’s 2019 activities with the Agency of Protected Areas of Georgia (APA). Time is of the essence.

By Ryan Michael Sherman

Image source:

22 April 2019 16:40