Georgia’s mountains are among the most beautiful in the world—but their roads are among the most dangerous. Improving safety will protect Georgians and boost tourism.
It was half an hour after I was supposed to depart Ushguli for Mestia, and my marshrutka (minibus) driver was still taking shots of vodka. As I watched him stagger towards the bar for yet another, I expressed my concern at his ability to navigate the winding mountain switchbacks and roadwork to another driver, who tried to reassure me, saying, “Don’t worry! In Georgia, it’s common for marshrutka drivers to have a little vodka for the road. He can handle it.”
I found a different driver and lived to see another day, but when I journeyed to the Tusheti region the next weekend, I was reminded of just how severe the risks on Georgia’s mountain roads can be.
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Featured by the BBC as among the “world’s most dangerous roads”, every few hundred metres there is a memorial to yet another Georgian who lost their life in an accident. Drivers ford streams and waterfalls on a stomach-turning gravel road only wide enough for one vehicle at a time—cars drive in reverse down the switchbacks to pull over and allow trucks going the other direction to pass. In its highest reaches, drivers pass through clouds and visibility plummets.
It is the only road to Tusheti and is open only from May to October.
Once in the Tush village of Dartlo, I met a Georgian medical student visiting her family in the village for the first time. She told me that she, like so many Georgians, had wanted to visit Tusheti for years but had been put off doing so due to the infamous reputation of the road.
Rockfall injured a car of tourists braving the road in 2017, and many of the accidents are due to landslides or the negligence of drivers. Many locals blame the police for failing to stop drunk driving—many years, no one is fined for speeding or drunk driving on the road.
While that particular car survived the rockfall with its passengers suffering only injuries, many of the accidents are fatal, with cars veering off the road and into ravines. In 2019, seven—including a minor—died and three other were hospitalised when a truck fell into a ravine along the road. In 2020, an entire marshrutka fell 80 metres off a cliff in a nearby region, killing 17.
Georgia’s ministry of internal affairs said in April 2019 that 6,608 individuals had been killed and 85,946 had been injured in road accidents in the country over the past ten years. That year, 481 would be killed and 7,921 injured in 5,839 road accidents. The number of deaths per one million inhabitants (129) is far higher than Romania, the worst performer in the European Union (96 deaths per one million inhabitants).
In 2020, 450 people were killed and 6,640 were injured in 4,999 reported road accidents. Hundreds of these accidents are attributable to driving under the influence of alcohol, while others are caused by speeding, reckless driving, and failing to maintain a single lane.
Many drivers and passengers do not wear seat belts, which can protect those in crashes from more severe injuries, and traffic barriers are scarce along cliffs and ravines.
Travel at your own risk
Georgia’s government does at least recognise that the country has a problem. It imposed tougher sanctions and higher fines for driving under the influence in late 2021 and in February 2023 launched a nationwide road safety campaign with EU support.
After years of successive governments promising to build a safer road to Tusheti, the current government announced in July 2022 that 34 million US dollars has been allocated to modernise the road—although it added that work will not be carried out until 2025.
Until then, travellers will make the trip at their own risk. For many, it’s a risk they are unwilling to take. This hampers economic development. Mountain roads are essential for tourism and the livelihoods of local farmers alike. Georgia’s urban-rural divide is one of the widest in the emerging Europe region: incomes in urban areas are almost double those of rural areas.
As tourism in Georgia booms, it offers an opportunity for rural households to move away from what is often little more than subsistence farming. But in order for the boom to make a difference to as many Georgians as possible, is essential that the country’s infrastructure is modernised and its roads made safe.
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