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Georgia's mountain wilderness opens up to the world

High in the Caucasus Mountains, a wild landscape of glacier-capped peaks, forested valleys and villages huddled around medieval stone towers has been locked away for centuries.

But Georgia's Upper Svaneti region - one of the highest and most remote settlements in Europe - is finally opening up to the outside world.

Home to only 14,000 people, Upper Svaneti is a relic of Georgia's ancient culture, a living museum where the locals speak a language that broke off from Georgian 3,000 years ago.

Getting to the regional capital Mestia, a village of 2,500 located 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level, currently involves a harrowing half-day drive along a rough road that winds around steep cliffs.

Now, in a bid to attract tourists and develop the region's economy, Georgia's government has launched a major programme to improve transport links to Svaneti, spending millions of dollars (euros) to refurbish roads and this summer announcing plans for a new airport in Mestia.

By the end of the year, Mestia governor Gocha Chelidze said, getting to Svaneti will involve nothing more than a short flight or smooth drive up the mountain.

"I've been around the world and I have never seen a place like Svaneti," Chelidze said. "It is a unique place, with beautiful nature and a rich heritage. We want the rest of the world to be able to see this."

Less than 40 years ago, there was not even the bumpy road leading to Upper Svaneti - only mountain trails that were often closed in the winter.

The region was so isolated that cultural and religious treasures were brought here for safekeeping during the many invasions Georgia has suffered over the centuries.

Some of those treasures, including a thick leather-bound Bible dating from 897, remain in the local museum.

Svaneti's isolation bred a defiant mountain culture and throughout its history the region often enjoyed semi-independent status.

It was also riven by internal feuding, which sparked the building of its trademark defensive stone towers, some of which date from as early as the ninth century. More than 250 of the towers remain and the region has been designated a UN World Heritage Site.

During the chaos in Georgia that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Svaneti became a haven for criminals, rife with banditry and kidnappings.

After coming to power in 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent government forces to the region and reasserted Tbilisi's control.

The government is spending 70 million Georgian lari (38 million dollars/30 million euros) this year alone to help develop the region's transport and tourism infrastructure, Chelidze said.

On the outskirts of Mestia, workers are building a new runway and airport that are expected to be ready by December 1. Regular flights are being planned from Georgian cities including the capital Tbilisi.

Renovation work on the road into Svaneti is also set for completion this year. Parts have already been covered in solid concrete blocks and teams of workers dot the route, hammering into the mountainsides with jackhammers.

Chelidze said the government's efforts are aimed at improving conditions in what is one of Georgia's poorest regions.

"This is bringing jobs and opportunities to the people here," he said.

But the government's projects have caused some controversy, sparking protests and even brief clashes between residents and police.

Some residents in Mestia said the government is imposing top-down changes without consulting the local community and using companies and workers from outside the region for infrastructure projects.

Questions over land ownership - which in the past were decided informally among the region's families - have also provoked problems.

Several residents and police were injured in brief clashes in July after protests erupted in support of four people who had been arrested for extortion.

The four had tried to sell land to a foreign investor that had been in their family for generations but was not legally registered as under their ownership.

"It's good for Svaneti to develop, but a lot of the things they are doing are wrong," said Temur Nakani, a 61-year-old pensioner in Mestia.

"They're hurting farmers by taking away their land and local people are not being employed, the companies are bringing in workers from outside Svaneti."

"No one asked us if this is what we wanted," he said.

Chelidze dismissed the concerns, saying "a few people in the opposition" were stirring up discontent.

Some have also raised fears that ending Svaneti's isolation could threaten the region's unique culture, but residents and officials say Svaneti's identity is strong enough to resist assimilation.

Chelidze said developing the region would in fact reverse a wave of out-migration in recent years as residents sought better opportunities in the rest of Georgia.

"This will prevent more people from leaving and bring people back to Svaneti," he said. "We are not damaging Svanetian culture, we are preserving it."