Love for a land other than the one where you was born is not a common phenomenon, but the history of writers is full of examples. In ancient times, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Hsüan-tsang are popular for their love for the Silk Road and their devotion and love for Central Asia. Today’s example from Europe is Dagmar Schreiber from Germany. She came to Kazakhstan for the first time in the year 1994 and fell in love the country and its people. Since then she has resided here, and has become more like a Kazakh woman than one from Germany.
The following is a special interview undertaken by The Region Initiative (TRI) especially for www.travelvideo.tv
Dagmar is shy about promotion and keeps working on writing instead of marketing or promoting herself. Therefore this is a very rare interview. The interviewer is Agha Iqrar Haroon, former President of the Ecotourism Society Pakistan and former Consultant to the Ministry of Tourism Government of Pakistan.
Dagmar says ecotourism works in Kazakhstan but that they are facing real challenges. She therefore appeals for moral support from the west to let ecotourism work.
Q: You are from Germany – what brought you to work in Kazakhstan?
A: That’s a long story. The main reason is love! Love of the country and its people and, later, love to one very special individual. I fell in love with the country in 1994 when I came here for the first time and saw these tremendous snowy mountains near Almaty. I spent several years in Kazakhstan working for a World Bank project (Living Standard Measurement Survey) and some other projects and realized that this love is not only for a few weeks or months – this is forever. Most of the people don’t know at all what kind of country Kazakhstan is.
Q: Was not difficult for a Western Woman to live alone in a Muslim country after the great tragedy of 9/11 when the theory of Clash of Civilizations ruled the mindset of the whole world?
A: I got tired from all these questions: Why do you go there, isn’t it dangerous, aren’t all these “Stans” full of Islamic fundamentalism, and so on. That’s why I decided to write a guide book about the country. This was in 2001 and I have already finished the fourth edition. At first it was only in German, then it was translated into English and published by Hong Kong based Odyssey Books & Guides.
Kazakhstan is not a Muslim country. The first paragraph in the Constitution of the county defines Kazakhstan as a secular demography. You have a lot of religions here, and you have a lot of people without any religion. Remember – It was part of the Soviel Union! Islam in Kazakhstan is very moderate. People are very cooperative and respect a woman if she lives within the parameters of social norms. Since I live here, I respect local custom and culture and people respect and love me, and I have never felt any problem living over here.
Q: Why did you opt for Tourism as your bread and butter although you could start any other job?
A: After a lot of travelling in this huge country and finishing the book, I suddenly came to the conclusion that the best job for me would be to design tours and accompany tourists. I became a tourism freelancer in 2003, and that was the best decision of my live! That’s the short story.
Q: Now you are working in the Ecotourism Information and Resource Centre in Almaty. What do you do and do you think ecotourism can work in Kazakistan?
A: If you work at the grass-root-level of tourism in Kazakhstan, you can see a lot of problems. Kazakhstan is blessed with oil and gas and other scarce rare materials and therefore it is becoming one of the richest countries in the World. The dark side of this wealth is the so called “Dutch disease.” Economy, politics and all social life suffer from the “big, fast money” made by resource exports. Especially tourism is experiencing severe losses. The “philosophy” of making big money in the short term cannot be applied to tourism. Of course, you can plan and realise so called mega projects in tourism, too, and the Kazakh state prefers these projects only.
For instance developing a huge, nice forest area near Almay into a ski resort of 300 kilometres of slopes. But they are not sustainable, even worse, they are bad for the environment and for the local communities. The Ecotourism Information and Resource Centre is supporting rural communities in developing eco-sites, promoting and selling their product. We found a good partner in the German CIM (Centre of International Migration and Development), who financed my work in Almaty. This is how I came to the Ecotourism Centre as a CIM financed “volunteer.” I have worked here for three and a half years know, and I’ve learned a lot during this time.
Q: Ecotourism usually faces stiff resistance from the corporate sector that prefers “mega tourism.” What is the status of the development of ecotourism in Kazakhstan?
A: The government wasn’t interested in ecotourism at all. Ecotourism was something suspect and dubious for them. But last year the government started to devote more attention to us. This is big progress, and we reached it through our persistence in talking, talking and talking about the benefits of ecotourism. Good partners like our sponsors, the Eco-Museum in Karaganda, NGOs like Green Salvation in Almaty are now working hands in hand.
Q: Community Based Tourism and ecotourism in South Asia and South America faced serve groupings and divisions within societies because some communities or groups feel they are ignored in taking the benefits of tourism. Did you feel the same problem existed here in Kazakhistan?
A: Yes you are right. There was competition among the few ecotourism activists in Kazakhstan when I started work for the Ecotourism Centre. We strongly worked on this problem and by now we have overcome this struggling period. Former rivalry turned into partnership, and this is great.
Q: There is a strong theory that ecotourism cannot sustain unless it attracts domestic tourism. Does the domestic market show interest in ecotourism products?
A: Five years ago only foreigners came to our eco-sites. Now locals have started to come to our centre and ask about tours to the rural guesthouses. They are very few, but it’s the beginning of marking a change. The main reason for this shift is, I guess, the huge increase of pollution and everyday stress in the cities: People are looking for peaceful places. Our tourism model empowers the local people in the eco-sites to do something against poverty and lethargy. In Kazakhstan we have a big gap between cities and rural areas. With our help some families in the villages during the last years significantly improved their living standard. Most successful are those people who can speak English and know something about their region and its history and nature, and can work not only as hosts, but as guides, too. Thus, ecotourism works as a stimulus for learning languages and more.
Q: What does Kazakhstan offer to European tourists and why do they come to visit this country?
A: They come here to see and to feel these wide natural landscapes, the fauna and flora, the rich history and culture. Some of them are botanists or bird watchers and some prefer trekking. Most of them come here again, because they like this fascinating mixture of Asian and European culture and the incredible vast landscape. Look, we have only 16 million population in a country of the size of Central and Western Europe! This means there has to be a lot of nature!
Q: Do you foresee any threats to ecotourism in Kazakhstan?
A: Many of the nicest natural places are privatized as hunting areas. You cannot enter them! And moreover: I am not sure at all about the compliance of hunting rules and quotas. In some of the protected areas you cannot find any big animals anymore. If you are asking locals where all the animals disappeared to, they will answer mysteriously, that some “big bosses” regularly hunt here. All these facts are very bad for Kazakhstan’s image as a tourist destination. If we could solve these problems, it would be great for increasing the number of eco-tourists in Kazakhstan. I am sure ecotourism in Kazakhstan has a big future.
Q: Would you like to share something about your private life?
A: I have two children that are studying in Germany. My daughter is doing studies in chemistry, my son in geography. I will not push them to follow my quest for tourism but I know they feel strongly about their involvement to help nature and communities. They come regularly to Kazakhstan and love to stay here.
Q: Any message you wish to deliver through Travel Video News?
A: Life is granted once. You can live only for you or you can live for your dreams and people who need your help. Communities need your support. They do not beg you but they offer their services in the form of ecotourism.
Please encourage them.
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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Agha Iqrar Haroon
Senior Producer – Current Affairs Department – Geo TV Lahore
Former Consultant – Ministry of Tourism, Government of Pakistan,
Former President – Ecotourism Society Pakistan