The mayor of Artvin led the way up the muddy slope to a banquet at his municipality's new vacation village. Watchmen followed, guns strapped to their backs.

The flimsy summer chalet in the snow-bound wilds of Turkey's northeast mountains was an unlikely setting for a touristic promotion.The watchmen said they carried guns partly from habit and partly to defend their rare foreign guests against the wolves, bears and wild boars of the rugged mountain forests.

Spits of meat sizzled on a log fire and anised-flavored raki spirit flowed freely. To beat the cold, men leaped and shouted through traditional Caucasian folk dances to the twanging of a metal-faced guitar.

A sense of adventure is part of any trip to Turkey's rough-hewn northeast, and Mayor Kadir Halvasi and local leaders have pinned their hopes on tourism to save Artvin from decline.

The mountainous Black Sea region is remote even by Turkish standards, on the border of Soviet Georgia 800 miles east of Istanbul.

Forestry and fishing peaked some years ago. Tea bushes covering the steep Black Sea hills with ripples of brilliant green benefit only the coastal valleys.

Mayor Halvasi presides over just 18,000 people in the muddy provincial capital, built on a mountainside so steep it is nearly as high as it is wide.

A few years ago the only outsiders familiar with Artvin were the occasional foreign transit truckers to Iran, but even these have evaporated with Iran's economic decline.

A total of 4,500 tourists visited Artvin in 1987, but more than 5,000 visitors have booked into Karahan's small Artvin hotel in advance this year, a pale reflection of a tourism explosion that is expected to hit Turkey in 1988.

Some come to walk or to hunt wild boars and bears with Karahan, but the main tourist attractions are a few exquisite 1,000-year-old Georgian churches tucked away in remote valleys.

Georgian blood is only one element in a complex ethnic patchwork of the region, united under the flag of the Turkish Republic in 1923 after 40 years of Russian occupation.

Almost everyone is now Moslem. The region's past diversity is revealed in a greater proportion of people with fair hair and green and blue eyes than elsewhere in Turkey.

A small minority along the Artvin coastline still speaks a language called Laz, of distant Caucasian origin. Fishermen and specialists in home-made guns, the Laz are famous in Turkey as the supposedly slow-witted butt of national jokes.

But it is the land connection to the Soviet Union's Caucasus republics that gives most hope to the local tourist industry.

"Tourists touring the Soviet Black Sea resorts can then complete their journey by coming here. We hope to become a tourism factory," said Tayfun Sezeroglu, president of Trabzon's Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The whole coastline from Trabzon to the Soviet border can accommodate only 600 tourists a night, compared to 2,200 hotel beds in the Soviet border resort of Batum alone.

But new building should double the region's hotel capacity this year and summer festivals featuring bullfights in mountain pastures are being promoted.

One blight is concrete apartment buildings, which is threatening to efface traditional wooden mansions along the coast. As one guide book aptly puts it, most buildings look as though they are either half-built or are falling down.

But there is plenty of color in the mountains and forests among the peasants and wild animals of the region.

"In the mountain villages, people still put their beehives on balconies and treetops to keep them out of the reach of the bears," Karahan said.