Gambling spots sometimes seem as commonplace as khachapuri bakeries in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. So it’s no surprise that amid the strong growth of the Internet, a rapidly increasing number of Georgians have a fever for online betting.
Across Georgia, gambling remains primarily a bricks-and-mortar phenomenon, a trend fueled both by government efforts to use casinos to attract tourism (some hotels can get gambling licenses for free), and a local desire to supplement scanty incomes.
But now, the trend is taking root on digital turf. The gambling site Adjarabet.com currently ranks as the second most popular Georgian website (after the TV-and-movie site Myvideo.ge), according to Top.ge, a site that tracks Georgian web traffic. Splashy ads for other gambling sites can be seen on billboards and public transportation throughout Tbilisi.
While hard numbers exist for Georgia’s traditional gaming industry (roughly five casinos and 24 slot clubs), the exact number of Georgian gambling sites is not known since the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) does not issue licenses for the sites, nor does it regulate them. But global estimates suggest that there’s a lot of money being won and lost on-line. KPMG, an international auditing firm, estimates that worldwide Internet gambling will be worth $30 billion in 2012, up 42 percent from just four years ago.
The social ramifications of online gambling are only just starting to be explored in Georgia. Some worry that the poorest and most uneducated Georgians will make bad choices and get caught in a vicious cycle of debt, potentially exacerbating a host of ancillary social and economic problems.
While no studies have been conducted on gambling addiction in Georgia, at least one psychologist, Manana Sologashvili, warns that Georgians seem to be especially prone to the allure of gambling. And with Internet use growing at an 18-percent annual rate, more and more Georgians are gaining access to online gambling sites.
“[Internet gambling] is quite [common] here in Georgia, especially among teenagers and young adults,” said Sologashvili, a psychologist who runs counseling programs for alcohol and drug addicts at the Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, a local non-governmental organization. She added that her own 26-year-old son suffers from a gambling addiction. “I think it is already a serious problem.”
Some youngsters say it is easy to get hooked on gambling websites. Mari, a student at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University, said she first registered at a gambling website to try and earn some money, but stopped gambling when she realized that “[o]nce you are addicted, it is already a disease.”
The ease with which people can access gambling sites is a source of concern for civil society activists. The Christian humanitarian aid organization World Vision is one non-governmental organization that is addressing the risks of online gambling as part of an overall Internet education program for parents in the central Georgian region of Imereti. “Of course, you . . . have part of the population which is scared of the Internet and would rather limit access to the Internet,” said Tamara Aleksidze, a World Vision children and youth specialist. “We are trying to explain that if it is used in the correct manner, it is a very good thing.”
Georgian schools use filters to limit pupils’ access to inappropriate websites, but Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Georgia do not offer filters for private accounts, according to representatives of Silknet, one of the country’s largest ISPs.
Only one gambling site, Lariwin, is known to provide links to filtering services on its website. Like Adjarabet, it did not respond to questions from EurasiaNet.org about its attempts to raise awareness among clients about addiction.
Government officials and members of parliament also did not respond to requests for information about efforts to raise public awareness about the dangers of online gambling.
With Internet use steadily increasing, the potential risks are not likely to diminish soon. Until now, most Internet users in Georgia have been concentrated in cities, especially Tbilisi. But statistics indicate the web is spreading fast in the Georgian countryside, thanks to the use of USB modems and mobile access. Georgians using USB modems for online access -- the only means available in most villages -- increased from 43,439 in 2010 to 48,055 in 2011, according to the GNCC.