Pankisi Camping – a Business Model Built on Breaking Down Stereotypes

We spoke with the founders of the company Pankisi Camping to hear about opening a business in Pankisi as outsiders and, in the case of one of the co-founders, as a woman.

The Pankisi Gorge is a region of Georgia north of Telavi, nested between steep mountain ranges. It is populated mainly by the Kist people, ethnic Chechens who have lived in that part of Georgia since the mid-1800s. The Kists practice Islam and largely speak Chechen in the home, but the language of instruction in schools is Georgian. The area is known for its beauty around Georgia, but in recent years it has also become connected with terrorism, accused and confirmed. During the hottest years of the war in Syria, several fighters joined the so-called Islamic State from the Pankisi Gorge, and there have been several anti-terrorism sting operations conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Pankisi’s villages. Many residents of Pankisi say their people are persecuted and unfairly accused of radicalism, over-generalizations of the actions of a few extremists.

Now, there is a new business in the gorge: Pankisi Camping. Two young Georgians, ethnic Georgian Mano Kavtaradze (27) and ethnic Kist Begi Borchashvili (22), have established one of the first female-led businesses in the region. Caucasus Business Week calls Kavtaradze “The First Georgian Girl to Start [a] Business in Pankisi.” GEORGIA TODAY spoke with Kavtaradze about her young company.

What exactly is Pankisi Camping?

Pankisi Camping is the first campsite in the Pankisi Gorge. This area is located near the Khadori waterfall. We made a place in which hikers, locals, travellers, tourists and everyone who loves nature can relax, enjoy the fresh air, ride horses, rent mountain bikes, hike in the mountains, swim in the Alazani River, taste local dishes, and understand the Kist way of life in Georgia.

Who started the organization and why did you want to start it?

Begi Borchashvili and I are friends. We decided to make a campsite last year, when I was in the Pankisi Gorge for the first time. I discovered this amazing place and saw there was nothing to accommodate tourists. I told Begi – let's make something to help develop tourism in the gorge. He said - why not.

We didn't have much money for big plans, so we decided to make a campsite.

Who is your target audience?

We set this up for hikers, travellers and tourists. But for us the main thing is for Georgians to understand that the Pankisi Gorge is not a scary place and to break the stereotype.

What services do you offer?

Our services are: Tours in Pankisi Gorge mountains, Renting hiking equipment, Renting horses, Horseback riding lessons, Renting mountain bikes, Nature photography tours and Culinary tours with a focus on local dishes.

What would you like people to know about Pankisi?

The main aim of our team is to tell people about Pankisi, for them to understand it’s not a place to be afraid of. I want everyone to know more about Pankisi, to love it the way I do. Pankisi is a great place, and I want everyone to know its traditions, culture, delicious cuisine and of course, wonderful nature. I want them to be more interested in Pankisi and to really discover it.

What has the local reaction been like?

The locals have been great. They helped us, they stood by me from the first day, and they are doing their best to do everything in the right way: they are very sweet and helpful. They give us everything they are able to, for example, we have free electricity, some of them give us some livestock things, which we really need right now, some of them help us in a physical way. In a nutshell, they do whatever they can.

What have the biggest challenges been in starting and running your organization?

Our biggest challenge is breaking down those misconceptions still in people’s minds. Some of them are still afraid of Pankisi, afraid to visit, so our biggest mission is to make Pankisi lovable for everyone, I want everyone to come here, and not be afraid to stay a while.

Unfortunately, there are some old gender stereotypes and norms in Pankisi. Parents, of course, treat girls more strictly – for example, girls aren't allowed to go out for long, they can't stay at camps at night and so on... Boys have more freedom in this case. But, of course, if our families know each other, then the girls come here as well, to Pankisi Camping, and stay.

What is your long-term vision for Pankisi Camping?

Our long-term vision is to make the campsite place more comfortable, manage other entertaining places here, to have different kinds of amusements and some places to relax in. We want to look after the surrounding nature and area, and of course, our biggest aim is to have great conditions for holiday-makers, or those who come here to stay and have a good time. When guests come from Tbilisi, or elsewhere, we want to be able to offer a variety of services. We want to have everything in one place: wildlife, entertainment, rest spots and so on... The peak of our success will be one thing: we want to be just like European camping places, especially- French ones, as they are very organized there, in France. For example, in France, you can't camp just anywhere like you can in Georgia. There, everything is pre-planned, and well-organized. Of course, we want to go to France and see with our own eyes how this system works, and if we ever get enough funding to visit European campsites, we will make it even better.

Interview edited for length and clarity

By Samantha Guthrie

23 July 2018 18:58