Cashing in on Kyrgyz Tourism Room for Further Development?

Take it how you like but having been based in Kyrgyzstan for two years now as a freelance consultant completing evaluations of developmental projects I’ve seen tourists to the country come and go and have reflected on my own experiences in the process too. I originally herald from the historic city of York in the North of England, whose main source of revenue comes from the large number of tourists who visit the city each year, largely attracted by it’s spectacular architectural and cultural heritage. As such, I am well aware of the benefits that tourism, when managed well can bring to a city, a region and a country.

I have frequently noticed people discussing how to develop tourism into a viable and sustainable sector of Kyrgyzstan’s economy whilst I have been here. A two day international forum held in Bishkek in November 2017 was in fact dedicated to the development of Kyrgyzstan as a ‘brand’ that could help to attract foreign visitors. At that forum, the consensus seemed to be that the Kyrgyzstan has great tourist potential, but to date this remains relatively untapped.

What can Kyrgyzstan actually offer foreign tourists? Due to the fact that the Kyrgyz were a nomadic people, and so did not construct buildings, Kyrgyzstan does not possess an abundance of historic sites such as those in Uzbekistan or Georgia. It can however offer a range of largely outdoor activities, all of which have the potential to play a role in attracting those in search of adventure and something ‘a bit different’ from the average ‘package’ holiday.

The impressive beauty of Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous wilderness offers huge possibilities for hiking, trekking, horse riding and skiing for the intrepid. Since 2014, Kyrgyzstan has hosted a biannual Nomadic Games, which are open to national teams from anywhere in the World who wish to compete in it. During the ‘Games’, over ten categories of traditional national sports associated with nomadism are conducted, including horseback archery, wrestling on horseback eagle hunting and ‘Kok Boru’, a sport similar to Polo in which two teams of hose riders battle over the carcass of a dead goat which serves as the ball. The Games start with a lavish opening ceremony, which includes national music and dancing provided by skilled performers in national costume, and is introduced by the country’s President.

For those who prefer less strenuous pursuits, Kyrgyzstan can also offer spectacular Issyk Kul, one of the world’s largest fresh water lakes, which was a popular holiday location during the Soviet period. Issyk Kul can offer can offer swimming, sunbathing, fishing and water skiing amongst other attractions. Winter also can offer excellent downhill and overland skiing at cheaper prices than in many locations.

Kyrgyzstan’s current immigration regulations are very favourable to attracting tourists, as no visa is required before arrival for the nationals of many countries. There is accommodation available all over the country to meet all kinds of travel budgets from a few dollars to several hundred dollars a night. Return flights to Kyrgyzstan from Western Europe can cost less than $500, and internal prices are some of the lowest in the Central Asia region. As such, holiday prices are reasonably price competitive internationally.

It seems to me to be possible to divide foreigners who come, or may come in the future, to Kyrgyzstan into four distinct categories, each of which has it’s own particular characteristics, which need to be taken into account by those working in tourism. The four distinct categories I would identify are English and Russian language backpackers, short-term Russian language holiday-makers, short-term English language students and short-term holiday-makers and tourists of all nationalities who attend the biannual Nomadic Games. Let’s take a look at the dynamics of each.

Backpackers visit Kyrgyzstan as part of their long-term world tours, often arriving overland from Kazakhstan or Tajikistan. They travel independently on a ‘shoestring’ budget, staying in cheap hostels and planning their own activities largely by consulting travel guides, other backpackers and social media. Although they are not always popular with mainstream travel agencies, they do provide income to hostel owners and other operators in the service sector. A future increase in their numbers would only bring more money into Kyrgyzstan

Short-term holidaymakers whether they are from post-Soviet countries or elsewhere have very different needs from backpackers, and have the potential to create a sustainable source of income to a variety of operators in Kyrgyzstan. To date, the overwhelming majority of foreign short-term tourists are from post-Soviet countries, for the most part from neighbouring Kazakhstan and Russia. Unlike potential tourists from elsewhere, post-Soviet tourists know about Kyrgyzstan’s attractions and in this sense Kyrgyzstan can be said to already have something of a ‘brand’ among this section of the potential tourist market. They also view the country as in some way being part of ‘their world’ with a shared joint historical experience, similar psychological makeup and do not experience any language barriers.

To date, the number of non-Russian speaking short-term holiday-makers in Kyrgyzstan has been relatively modest. According to Government statistics, they have largely been from Western Europe, China, India and the Arab World. Non-Russian speaking short-term holiday makers would no doubt enjoy the same types of activities as Russian speakers, but would require an English, Chinese, Arabic or other language guide.

Having given the subject much thought, It has occurred to me and no doubt to others that there is great potential in Kyrgyzstan for incredible organised adventure holidays for groups of foreign tourists both from former Soviet countries and elsewhere. An action packed holiday of two to three weeks of could for instance consist of:
Hiking and trekking in the mountains, including camping in scenic locations such as beautiful lakes.
Horse riding either for experienced or lessons for beginners.
Coaching in how to play Kok Boru.
Coaching in archery.
An overnight stay in a yurt stay with a semi-nomadic family.
Learning Central Asian cooking from a master chef.
Souvenir hunting in the bazaar.
Sunbathing, swimming, water-skiing for the experienced and learners, or yoga at Issyk Kul.
Skiing in winter and spring, which could of course make up an entire holiday itself with some of the above-mentioned activities thrown in.
A historical tour of Bishkek.

In early February 2018, I spoke with Azamat Zhamankulov, the Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Culture, information and tourism of the Kyrgyz Republic in order to get an idea of the Government of Kyrgyzstan’s plans for developing the tourist sector. I learned that the Government views tourisms as being one of the most important economic sectors to develop and aims to in crease revenue from tourism to over 10% of GDP by 2023 from less than 5% at present. Government strategies to create ‘sustainable’ tourism include support to private sector operators, support to infrastructure, support to the biannual Nomadic Games and continuing and expanding the most liberal visa regulations in the Central Asia region. I have been impressed by the Government’s positive support for tourism in Kyrgyzstan whilst I have been in the country, and consider that their intentions to develop tourism potential in cooperation with the private sector are fully realisable.

I spoke with another person who can potentially play a key role in making Kyrgyzstan a major tourist destination also in February 2018, Nursultan Adenov, Head of the Secretariat of the World Nomad Games. He explained something of the cultural significance of the Games. The Games are not political and have international significance. They can be viewed as a celebration of the world’s largely lost nomadic lifestyle, which was/is totally un-polluting, lived in harmony with nature and has it’s own history, legends, form of leadership, art forms, games and laws. There is insufficient space to explore these kind of issues here, but anyone interested in finding out more, may like to attend the next Games themselves in September 2018.

One of the main things that has become clear to me is that the next International Nomad Games in September 2018 has the potential to be a catalyst for the development in Kyrgyzstan into a sustainable industry in the future.

For the 2018 Nomadic Games, I would suggest that it is desirable to maximize both international television and social media coverage of the games. Searches on the internet show that there was some international coverage of the previous Nomad Games. Reputable international newspapers, such as The Guardian, wrote about the 2016 Games, whilst international TV channels, Al Jazeera and an Indian channel DD News, produced informative reportages on it. On Youtube, as of early January 2016, the short clip of Al Jazeera had just under 20,000 views, whilst the DD News coverage had less than 2,000.

I would suggest that government and private sector planners in Kyrgyzstan’s tourism business might like to aim to increase the coverage of the Nomad Games on international TV channels, newspapers and social media through implementation of a carefully planned strategy. They might like to have in mind the ‘brand’ of Kyrgyzstan they wish to create. I would suggest that this ‘brand’ could be, for instance, a fascinating, beautiful, largely undiscovered destination for the adventurous and a relatively new, modern, developing nation, rediscovering its lost traditional nomadic heritage.

A quality documentary about the Games, which gives a flavour of Kyrgyzstan’s potential tourist attractions shown on international channels that could be very welcome. If such a film were to be made, those with an interest in tourism development in Kyrgyzstan should do as much as they can to make the film go viral as far as is possible. After this, individual travel agents in Kyrgyzstan could then take the opportunity to publicise their services online to potential new clients. With this kind of exposure to what tourists are likely to come Kyrgyzstan, and with the money they bring, tourist services can be improved and expanded.

In some cases international aid projects from private sector development have provided support to the tourism sector, for example by training hotel staff and tourist guides. I would suggest that future projects could continue to help tourism in Kyrgyzstan by teaching basic English phrases with the necessary interpersonal skills to border guards and those who work with tourists, such as guides and accommodation receptionists. Border guards smiling and saying ‘Welcome to Kyrgyzstan. Enjoy your stay’, and friendly hotel and hostel with whom foreign tourists can communicate would no doubt make a good impression on foreign visitors, who would then write about it on social media. This could only boost the budding tourist business and delivery the country a potentially even bigger future.

text by Symon Lord

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