In recent years, however, an entirely different type of attraction has been drawing tourists to Gonio.
Locals say their once peaceful village has turned into a prostitution hub that sees hundreds of foreign women, mostly from Central Asia and the North Caucasus, descend on Gonio in the summer months.
The sex workers appear to cater chiefly to Turkish men, who do not require visas to cross into Georgia. Gonio lies a mere 4 kilometers from the Turkish border.
Local residents complain the scantily clad women openly solicit for clients in the streets and flag down cars on the village’s main road, which runs between the Turkish border and Georgia’s main Black Sea resort of Batumi.
“Everyone in the Ajara region knows what problems we face here in Gonio,” one local says. “These Uzbek women roam around the village, they don’t care whether there are children nearby. Together with Turks, they have taken over Gonio, and possibly the whole of Batumi.”
The prostitutes are hard to ignore in tiny Gonio, home to just 3,000 inhabitants. Villagers say their presence deeply offends their feelings and disrupts their traditional lifestyle.
“The Turks are beginning to think that all women are like that,” says another resident, Mamuka Malakhmadze. “We are a very proud people, and if someone approaches our wives or even our female neighbors, they will be in trouble. Why do we have to deal with this in our village?”
Locals accuse the Georgian government of turning a blind eye to Gonio’s rampant prostitution.
They hold regular pickets against sex tourism, and some 450 people recently sent a letter of complaint to the local mayor, Ajara’s regional authorities, and the office of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
‘Too Little Being Done’
The authorities have taken some steps to tackle the problem.
Police conduct occasional raids, although they usually come back empty-handed. Residents say sex workers tend to clear the scene minutes before the raids, causing suspicion that police may have ties to prostitution circles.
A Georgian court recently sentenced a man to 15 years in jail for running a prostitution ring in the Ajara region.
And this week, a woman from Azerbaijan was fined the equivalent of $60 and deported from Georgia after admitting to working as a prostitute in Gonio.
The measures, however, have had no visible impact on the overall situation in Gonio.
One of the petition’s signatories, David Kokoladze, says the sex tourists are becoming increasingly brazen
“When we complain to them, they have grown so insolent that they respond aggressively, they tell us to mind our own business,” Kokoladze says. “Armenians, too, are now among the clients. The women are mainly from Uzbekistan, Daghestan, and Chechnya. What takes place here is completely obvious because our main road is used by everyone, from government officials to peasants.”
Most worryingly, a number of these women have likely been forced into prostitution.
The man recently convicted over prostitution in Ajara was found guilty of luring an Uzbek woman to Georgia on promises of employment at a local tea factory. Judges said the man then physically tortured her into working as a prostitute.
The plight of Gonio’s sex workers was brought to light again last month when a Kyrgyz prostitute committed suicide in the village.
Georgia has stepped up efforts to combat human trafficking on its territory in recent years, investigating trafficking cases, opening shelters for victims, and conducting training and prevention activities.
The U.S. State Department’s 2012 report on human trafficking, released on June 19, placed Georgia in “Tier 1,” alongside countries that fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
Some human rights campaigners, however, say the unbridled prostitution in Gonio casts severe doubts on Georgia’s commitment to combating sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“If Georgia is in the [State Department's] first tier, it’s largely a political decision because we certainly don’t deserve it,” says Nana Nazarova, who runs the Georgian civic group People’s Harmonious Development Association. Our laws are the best, and we have shelters and funds for these shelters. But what we are witnessing in Ajara is outrageous.”
While praising Tbilisi for its efforts in tackling human trafficking, the State Department also noted that “women from Uzbekistan and possibly other countries are found in forced prostitution in the commercial sex industry in Georgia.”
Its report cautioned that Georgia, from previously being mainly “a source and transit country,” was increasingly turning into a destination country for trafficked people.