Gonio – Bumpy Roads to Popularity

by Giga Chikhladze
Tbilisi – Gonio – Tbilisi

Formerly inaccessible security area near the state border with Turkey in Adjara Autonomous Republic becomes increasingly attractive to the tourists. However, the vestiges of the past and the current economic policy of the autonomy could be undermining private entrepreneurship and increased profits for the locals.

…1960s, Adjara Autonomous Republic is the border between two, bitterly contesting military blocks. It is also the place where the NATO country -Turkey immediately borders USSR.  Both sides deploy best equipment and troops here, antinuclear shelters are constructed almost everywhere. Adjara, which has become one of those numerous ‘closed’ zones in the USSR long before, is transformed into one huge military training field.

It was assumed, that if the NATO ground troops invade Georgia from Turkey, the whole coastal area from Chorokhi River to the state border would come under intense fire. There was a plan of evacuation of the local population, but the militaries were ready to sacrifice them, if necessary. Entry to the border areas is possible only with special passes; red posters to "assist the border guards" greet the local inhabitants at every corner.

Today everything is different here. Majority of local residents regularly travels to Turkey, to bring relatively cheap Turkish products and textile into the country. Turkish language is heard quite commonly. But it quite might be that soon the locals will have to learn English as well, since Gonio is attracting more and more tourists, traveling to the seashore during Summer season.

So far Gonio’s economy is based not on the tourists, but on Turkish truck drivers. There are numerous parking lots, hotels and restaurants for them in Gonio. They cost much less in Georgia than in Turkey, so the drivers prefer to find shelter here, especially as the village is conveniently located right along the highway connecting Turkey with Georgia.

Every cafe and restaurant in Gonio has a signboard, which reads somewhat confusing word for every Georgian who has not been here: Lokanta – meaning dining hall in Turkish. In the evenings the Lokantas are full with the drivers and prostitutes, arriving here from Batumi, Tbilisi and some Russian cities. Locals do not go to Lokantas: "Turks go there. Georgians have nothing to do in those places. No, it is not dangerous; it’s just a local custom"- says Tengiz, a local resident.

124 years ago Adjara was returned to Georgia by Turkey. This is quite a long period of time, but the local’s attitude towards the Turks is still dubious. On the one hand, Turkey means investment, business and jobs for Adjara. But on the other hand the local residents try to keep certain distance, even famous traditions of Georgian hospitality do not always apply.

Gonio dwellers claim that once a Turkish ship is in Georgian waters, it dumps all its waste to the sea, angry that Georgians are "enticing" the tourists, that were ought to go to Turkey. It is hard to check the validity of this local narrative, but "enticing" may have some truth to it.

Yes, Gonio is still more popular among the truck drivers than the tourists, but it slowly starts to build up its prestige. Even though Gonio was ‘opened’ 10 years ago, mass inflow of tourists began only last year. Gradually Gonio is gaining reputation of a known resort, when only several years ago not many in Tbilisi have ever heard about this place. There is another factor that stimulates Gonio’s popularity: there is an ancient fortress where archeologists have made a number of important discoveries.

There are only four villages between Chorokhi river and the state border along the coastline. Akhalsopeli, with its coastal area is occupied by the military training ground can attract only the adepts of quite extreme tourism. Gonio, Kvariati and Sarpi feature better shoreline and clean waters.

But the line of small hotels, cafes, restaurants, gas stations and shops that merge in a dazzling line all through Adjara seems to be cut off by the Chorokhi river. Indistinct hotels and cafes for truck drivers do not count here. Only Turks stay there.

"Yes, nothing is being constructed beyond Chorokhi. This is a ‘red zone’ and the ‘grandpa’ [Adjarian leader Aslan Abashidze] keeps it as is. No new buildings except several houses. This place is his economic wild card. Who knows, maybe he wants it to be a free economic zone in the future? No one can tell it now," local businessman Dursun says.

"I could build up local beach, bring jet scooters, build a cafe, a bar, but… Aslan [Abashidze] thinks that it is too early. So, I may build something but nobody will let me use what I’ve built. Besides, the government owns big part of the land. So I am going to cut up my tangerine garden and build two small cottages for the tourists," says another local resident Abdullah.

Many locals are going to do the same. Tangerine costs almost nothing and there is plenty of it. Exporting is too costly. Tourist business is much more profitable and promising in the long run.

Many want to come to Gonio for swimming, but almost nobody is going to spend entire vacation there. Absence of cafes, restaurants, shops, drugstores and all the rest of the tourist infrastructure frightens off lot of people. But the locals try to change the situation in their favor. At least there are lifeguards appearing on the beaches.

On a closer inspection however, the lifeguards appear to be complementing their brave job with petty trading – selling beer, ice cream, renting water bikes, umbrellas and benches. They have built the booth with wood, washed by sea to the shore and try to clean up the beach a little. They also say there is an award for every 6 people saved per beach. "Award is a good thing, but who needs such a meager award? It is better not to the accidents at all. By the way we haven’t had any so far. Tourists – that’s what really matters!"