Take a quick glance at the first page of Google and you’ll soon understand why residents of Pankisi Valley, a small community in Georgia’s Kakheti region, have grown tired of the way they are portrayed by the media.

The six-mile-long (9.6 kilometer) valley between the Greater Caucasus mountains and Alazani wine country is home to the Kists, descendants of Chechen settlers who migrated to Georgia between 1830 and 1870. They speak their own language, practice their own culture, and follow Sunni Muslim traditions.

The Jokolo Mosque not far from Nazy’s Guest House
In Pankisi there is breathtaking scenery and culture at every turn

While Pankisi has faced its fair share of challenges in the past, the perpetuation of negative stereotypes has at times left people feeling isolated and without hope. Journalists have shaped the narrative, and the Kists have struggled to tell their story on their own terms.

That was until one woman, Nazy Dakishvili, decided to take matters into her own hands.

Nazy knew that if more people had a chance to visit the valley and experience Kist culture firsthand, then those stereotypes would gradually fall away, revealing her home for what it truly is: A peace-loving, culturally vibrant, beautiful place. She left her career as a lawyer in Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, and returned to her village of Jokolo to lead her community into a new future.

In 2013, she opened Nazy’s Guest House in the mid-century home her grandfather built. Five years later, she won the award for ‘Best Community Based Tourism in Georgia’, a major milestone for the entire community.

That same year, Nazy founded the Pankisi Valley Tourism and Development Association (PVTDA) to promote sustainable rural tourism in the region. Led by a team of passionate women, the Association’s duties range from securing grants for small businesses to providing assistance to low-income families and organizing clean-up events to rehabilitate the environment.

It’s all part of a vision pioneered by Nazy and shared by the entire community: to reframe Pankisi in the world’s eyes and put the valley on Georgia’s tourism map where it belongs.

Nazy Dakishvili

Pankisi Valley is often portrayed in a negative light in the media. What impact has this had on your community?

When I was living in Tbilisi, whenever I mentioned Pankisi to someone they always had a reaction. The stereotypes in the media are so powerful that everyone was convinced it was dangerous. I sometimes wondered if there was another place called Pankisi because I knew this wasn’t the truth about my home.

During the Chechen refugee crisis [1999 to 2009], Pankisi got a lot of negative media coverage. Journalists were coming here to gather information, but they never had the full picture. If you only spend a day there without taking the time to observe the community, the troubles and the struggles, how can you tell the full story? Journalists write their articles and that’s it. We have to live with the consequences of their words.

Because of this, many people in the community became isolated and lost their trust in journalists and outsiders. People didn’t feel like they were part of the country. They felt caught somewhere between Chechnya and Georgia.

Why were you so confident that tourism could be part of the solution?

Back then, people thought they knew everything they needed to know about Pankisi from the media and didn’t feel any need to find out for themselves. I thought that promoting tourism could dispel the stigma because if people could spend time in Pankisi, they would see the real situation beyond the stereotypes. Because of our unique Kist culture, this is like another world within Georgia. Tourism was an opportunity to promote our customs, our history, and our traditions of hospitality.

We needed some light coming into Pankisi. People’s trust was abused. Before tourism, there were no jobs and no opportunities in the valley, so employing people was also a priority. Tourism is the only viable industry here because we don’t have any manufacturing and we only have a limited amount of land for agriculture.

One distinct aspect of Kist culture is its tasty cuisine with dishes like khinkali (Georgian dumplings) filled with nettle.

How did your family and the rest of the community react when you started developing tourism in Pankisi? Were people skeptical?

It’s not something people were thinking about seriously. They were convinced it wouldn’t work. I told them anything was possible if we worked together. I was so enthusiastic from the beginning, I thought that even if we got just one tourist the project will be a huge success. The main thing was to show our true face and tell our true story.

When you start from zero, it’s like climbing a mountain. I realized there were a lot of challenges I had to deal with that no normal business has to face. In the beginning, I was on the phone from the early morning to the late hours trying to get support from the government and tourism agencies, but I was met with no response. There were so many times I thought it was better to give up because of these barriers. We’ve had to fight against these stereotypes every day to change the mentality and save our reputation.

Within the community, people were suspicious that tourists were journalists for the first two years or so. They just couldn’t imagine that tourists would be coming here—but slowly they started to understand. Tourism has been very successful as a way for people to regain trust in outsiders. Pankisi is a very close-knit community, so when a tourist comes here, they’re not seen as Nazy’s guest, but as Pankisi’s guest. After realizing the government is also willing to support us, that has given people even more assurance.

You left your career as a lawyer in Tbilisi to open your guest house. Was it a difficult decision to make that kind of sacrifice?

When I started out, I had no knowledge of tourism. I had to go and ‘be a tourist’ by traveling to the regions—to Tusheti, Khevsureti—to see what it was like to stay in a guest house.

I had my own future plans, but I decided to leave everything. It was not an easy decision, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice either; if it benefits my community, improves the quality of people’s lives and gives them hope and motivation, then I’m satisfied.

I feel like this is my duty. I think that if something needs changing, everyone has an obligation to stay in their community and be part of the change. We all share this collective responsibility. No one will come and change things for us, we first have to change within ourselves.

There have been times when I’ve felt I made the wrong decision, but I always knew that Pankisi needed to have a voice, whether through tourism or something else. I knew this was something I had to do. And I think believing in myself motivated others, too. Having the support and trust from other women has made me stronger.

exterior and interior of Nazy’s Guest House

Why do you think it’s the women who have emerged as leaders of tourism in Pankisi?

Women play a very important role in our community. All of our teachers are women. Most of the businesses here are run by women. There is often a misconception that in Kist culture, women have no rights. But it’s completely the opposite: women are very actively involved. If we don’t like something, we try to change it.

Women have the passion; we see the potential, we are the ones who want to seize the opportunity. It was women entrepreneurs who decided to establish the Pankisi Valley Tourism & Development Association (PVTDA) because we wanted to actively participate in bringing positive change to the valley.

After we saw 65 tourists in the first year then 135 tourists the next year, that’s when women started to realize they could try their own business ideas. By the time we had seven guest houses, I said, ‘Why are we working separately? We should be working together to develop different services that complement each other: Cafes, restaurants, handicrafts’. That’s how the PVTDA came about.

How has sustainable tourism and the PVTDA changed things in Pankisi?

Our success has given people a positive drive to use the skills they have. It’s created job opportunities for people to work as guides, drivers, cleaners and cooks. Many people have created their own projects with the support of NGOs and government grants. When we compare then and now, there are a lot of small businesses evolving: Guest houses, shops, small restaurants, souvenir producers, even beekeepers.

Tourism has brought a new spirit to the community. I remember when I first moved back to Pankisi from Tbilisi, I thought it was so quiet here – it felt like there was no light, no happiness in the community. It felt like people had no hope for the future. Now, everyone has different plans, dreams… Someone is always doing something to bring life back into this place.

How has this change impacted young people?

Traditionally many people used to go abroad to do seasonal work to support their families. The younger generations in particular wanted to leave because there were no opportunities here. They saw their future outside of Pankisi. Something needed to change to keep them here.

Tourism has helped them to see their future here in the valley—a future they can create for themselves. Now when I ask young people what they want to do, many want to stay here and become guides or start their own businesses so they can be involved in tourism. Kids as young as 14 come to me and ask for my help to apply for a grant. I feel so happy, like a parent feels for their children.

Do you find that people are more curious about their history and culture now?

Before they started working with tourists, our young guides had never thought about Kist traditions and values in that way. They didn’t know their own history. Now, they’ve slowly started to realize where they live, why they live. I know our guides feel proud when we get guests who are interested in their culture. They are so enthusiastic to share their knowledge with others. Tourism is a way for all of us to protect our language and our traditions.

Guides are happy to show guests around Pankisi on bike, foot, or even horseback.

What is your hope for the future of Pankisi?

My biggest wish is that one day, we won’t have to convince people to visit Pankisi Valley by explaining how safe it is. I hope that people will just know. I don’t want to keep talking about the negative stereotypes. I want to start talking about something else: Our culture, our environment, our potential. I don’t want to keep digging up the past and discussing it again and again. I want this to become a tourist destination for the right reasons.

To achieve that, we are planning to improve the quality of our services and provide training for our guides. The Association isn’t only working for Kists, we also want to encourage neighboring Georgian villages to start their own tourism businesses. We want to give that support to them, too.

As a community, we are trying to avoid conflict and tension; to live peacefully. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We just have to try our best.

Speaking of sustainable travel, be sure to read our breakdown of Inspirational Travel vs. Sustainable Travel.