Near Georgia’s border with Chechnya, and about an hour’s car ride north from the regional capital of Kakheti, Pankisi -- otherwise known as Pankisi Gorge -- is a valley dotted with villages carpeting the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. Nearly half of its population of less than 10,000 are of Chechen descent.
The Gorge seemed to emerge from anonymity in the early 2000s amid reports of local strongholds of Salafi and Wahhabi Islam, which drew international attention and government crackdown. These fundamentalist sects reportedly impelled a number of Pankisi locals to lay their down their lives for the ISIS cause.
Though the proportion of extremist Muslims in the region remains contested and conflict has all but ceased, the affiliations to ISIS have taken their toll on outsiders’ perceptions of the area. A cursory internet search of “Pankisi” paints a less-than-flattering picture thorough coverage of the topic by journalists and bloggers, some of whom have personally butted heads with Pankisi residents. These conflicts only increased the tensions surrounding the Gorge.
Thanks to community members and the Georgian government’s astute management of these issues, Pankisi has recently made headway in rebuilding its positive reputation through strategic developments in the tourism industry. Government programs have played a key role in this restoration, while neighboring countries have proven adept at keeping regional tensions in check. Through investments in cultural initiatives, local stakeholders continue to hold Pankisi above water amid waves of public pressure and negative press. Over the past few years, the beauty of Pankisi’s pristine and sweeping landscapes have begun to attract visitors from surrounding regions. A place that people were once afraid to set foot in has become a tourist destination whose popularity is on the rise.