Founder of Pankisi Camping: Everyone Has Their Own Everest to Climb

Mano Kavtaradze founded Pankisi Camping in 2018 to share Pankisi Gorge’s natural beauty with people from around the world. With a lot of hard work and a little support from USAID, she has built a thriving business. This year, she was chosen for Forbes Georgia’s ‘30 Under 30’ list.

Nestled between the snow-capped Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north and lush wine country to the south, Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is beautiful, rugged, and remote. Pankisi is home to the ethnic Kists, a Sunni Muslim group with a long history of peaceful interaction with neighboring areas. This interaction was disrupted by the lawlessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, causing Pankisi to be stigmatized and largely isolated from the rest of the country.

With programs focused on economic opportunity and civic engagement, USAID works to help the people of Pankisi reintegrate into national political and economic life. These programs empower women and establish platforms for Pankisi youth to interact with their ethnic Georgian counterparts, with the overall goal of creating economic opportunities and bridging the divide between Pankisi and the surrounding areas.

Mano Kavtaradze, founder of Pankisi Camping, an adventure tourism business, is one local entrepreneur making a positive impact. She’s also proving that women can make it in adventure tourism, a sector that is male-dominated. Last month, Mano was featured in Forbes Georgia’s ‘30 Under 30’ list, a major milestone for a young entrepreneur who launched her business in 2018 with a grant from the USAID Zrda Activity in Georgia. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to share the beauty of Pankisi with the wider world, building a commercially-sustainable tourism business in the process.

Mano recently spoke with USAID about doing business in Pankisi, her future plans, and how sustainable tourism can drive economic growth in Georgia.

What inspired you to become a tour guide?

I grew up in a mountain village and the mountain is an integral part of my life. It is a feeling of special freedom for me. When you stand wordless, between the sky and the earth, and your heart beats really fast, you want to share this emotion with others. I am proudest when I introduce my country to tourists. I turned my hobby into my profession. My inspiration is my love of the mountains.

Why did you choose Pankisi as the place you want to show to the world?

Because I saw the need here. One year ago, I founded the NGO ‘Youth for Pankisi Development’. I’m not just doing tourism, I want to show Georgia that the Kists are our people, they have 200 years of coexistence with us. We share a common past, traditions, and customs. The Kists are very hospitable people and guests here are more than welcome. Today, life in Pankisi is as safe as in the rest of Georgia.

Why did I choose Pankisi as the place I want to show to the world? The world already knows Pankisi, though, unfortunately, in a negative sense. Now is the time for that to change. The history of Pankisi Gorge, ancient churches and castles, the Caucasus Mountains, waterfalls, rivers and lakes, flora, fauna and, most importantly, the people, traditions, cuisine, and culture, mean that Pankisi can become a world-famous tourist destination.

What is your goal for Pankisi Camping? What do you hope to achieve?

My goal is to make Pankisi Camping an adventure tourism center in the valley. It will be a full-fledged camp with cottages, tents, caravan cars, restaurants, and entertainment and leisure space. Our guests will be able to spend the night in nature, get acquainted with the lifestyle of the locals, plan a hiking tour, rent a mountain bike, learn horseback riding, swim in the mountain rivers, and spend the evening with a bonfire.

In the long run, I aim to create a network of camping sites and cover other mountainous regions of Georgia. For the development of adventure tourism, we need to develop camping.

Long term, what is the role of adventure tourism in Georgia? Can adventure tourism be a bigger part of Georgia’s economy?

When I got involved in adventure tourism, I knew that with this business I could benefit my country’s economy more than if I worked in an office. And yes, I do believe that adventure tourism will take an important place in the Georgian economy. It will take years, but it is achievable.

We have all the conditions to develop adventure tourism at the highest level. There is potential in people as well, especially in young people. I graduated from the Adventure Tourism School and got all the necessary skills. I think it is important to have such schools in the mountainous regions as well, so that guides can be trained on-site. I would also like for young people to have access to short-term internship programs in countries with more developed tourism sectors.

You are a woman entrepreneur making an impact in an industry that some people think is male dominated. Do you have any advice for young women looking to get into entrepreneurship and/or adventure tourism?

I never thought my boundaries were limited. Yes, Georgia is a country of stereotypes, every single step of my life was the subject of discussion. "There is no place for a woman in the mountains," "This is not a woman's business," "What do you want in Pankisi"? And, you know, I used those phrases to motivate me: each of my steps forward is proof of the fact that I am where I should be. Today, no one tells me that I cannot do something.

For entrepreneurs just starting out, I can share my favorite quote: "Everyone has their own Everest to climb." Set a goal, be courageous, take risks, and never be afraid of mistakes - that's the motivation of my life.

If you could tell one story about yourself, what would it be?

Two years ago, I received a grant of 2,700 GEL from the USAID Zrda Activity in Georgia to open the camp. Since then, I’ve been able to move the business forward without outside support. Last summer, I hosted about 300 Georgian and foreign visitors.


Mano Kavtaradze started Pankisi Camping in 2018 to share the beauty of Pankisi with the wider world. Photo credit: Pankisi Camping.


26 March 2020 17:34