Irish Senator, Fiona O’Malley, volunteered through VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) with The State Committee on Youth Affairs, Sports and Tourism of Tajikistan and the local government of Penjkent. Open Central Asia tracked her down to get an exclusive interview.
Please tell us a little bit about your background?
I have been in politics for more than ten years – as a counsellor, TD and Senator. The Prime Minister of Ireland (Taoiseach) appointed me to the upper house of The Irish Parliament in 2007. I am a public servant and believe passionately in my responsibility to represent the people who put me where I am today.
During my Parliamentary career I have been involved in developing a sustainable energy policy for The Irish Republic, helping promote a world culture festival in Dun Laoghaire, designing a scheme to ring-fence funding for the arts and as a member of the parliamentary committee responsible for tourism. All of these issues are currently relevant to Tajikistan and its development.
How did you first become involved with Tajikistan? What is Ireland’s interest in Tajikistan?
I have wanted to visit this mysterious part of the world since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but my first involvement has come through this opportunity with VSO.
Actually there has been very little engagement between Ireland and Tajikistan, beyond provision of humanitarian aid. However, there are many similarities between the two countries and the evolution of both economies. The Irish Republic also had high levels of poverty and transformation has been fast, facilitated by membership of the European Union. If Tajikistan wants to develop tourism, Ireland is a pretty good model. Tourism is the largest indigenous contributor to our economy and, like Tajikistan, Ireland has a tradition of hospitality.
How can tourism benefit the Tajik people in the long term?
There is strong commitment to tourism development at senior levels in the Tajik government. The President has stated that this should be a priority and keenly promotes the country overseas. The State Committee for Tourism is working very hard to nurture conditions for tourism development, including through simplified visa regimes and representation at international tourism fairs (including World Travel Market in London this November).
As we witnessed in Ireland, tourism has the potential to give people economic independence. The essential raw materials are in place in Tajikistan and tourism development seems more realistic than other sectors of the economy where people face more significant challenges in getting their goods to market.
Modern tourists demand authentic experiences that are not staged- as I found during my visit, there is no shortage of these in Tajikistan!
What do you see as the key areas of development for Tajik tourism?
During my visit, I worked with local and national government to raise awareness, both inside and beyond Tajikistan, of tourism as a tool for significant economic development. One of my key messages was that there are many countries such as Ireland or Greece who have dramatically improved the economic wellbeing of their populations through tourism development. From what I have seen, Tajikistan could also make tourism its number one sector. Of course, there is a lot more to do and VSO will continue to work with partners in government, private and NGO sectors to build upon the dialogue during my visit.
Tajikistan has been hidden for a long time and therefore more work is needed in helping service providers to better understand and meet the demands of international tourists. Significant improvements have been made in this sphere and VSO tourism specialists will continue to coach local service providers to develop competitively priced products that are more in line with international expectations.
Few people have heard of Tajikistan. Those that have often think of it as a dangerous country. How can we help to promote the country and reduce such fears?
My visit took place just after the bomb in Khojand, but we must put this in perspective. The government takes security very seriously and the country is very much safer than most locations that tourists currently visit globally. There are misperceptions about Tajikistan, mainly as a result of ignorance and lack of information.
Towards the end of my visit, I participated in a national press conference in Dushanbe and a journalist also asked me about security. I emphasised in my response that the onus is on all of us, including journalists, to talk about the positives of the country and not only focus on the negatives.
Tajikistan is a very young country, celebrating 19 years of independence during my visit. However, there is no doubt that it is a jewel waiting to be discovered. We must all support the country in attracting the attention of international visitors, because this will improve the well-being of its citizens, which will ultimately mean that it continues to be the safe place it is today.
What is the biggest change you are aiming for in order to encourage more tourism to the country?
Lots of work is taking place at present to help the Tajik population and government at all levels to value tourism as a significant means to achieve economic development and independence. My visit will contribute to this work. It is also my hope that more Europeans will learn about the country and therefore be interested in visiting. I certainly intend to return!
Do you have a favourite place in Tajikistan?
There are many places and experiences I enjoyed during my visit. The Anzob Pass was incredible – passing through the glaciers and the wild mountain scenery. I have not experienced mountains as beautiful as these before.
In Penjikent I loved visiting ancient Penjikent at sunset and the excellent home stay at Nofin on The Seven Lakes. I went for a swim in one of the lakes during my visit – very cold but simply magical. I have a passion for art, so it was also a treat for me to visit the artists in their studios at the Artist Colony in Dushanbe.
However, I am very conscious that there is a great deal more to discover in this magical country and I can’t wait to return!