The recent international tourist forum “Ulytau-2019” in Nursultan City attracted participants from more than 30 countries, including the UK, USA, Italy, France and others. President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan announced that the government of the country would continue putting special attention and billions of dollars into promoting his country as a major tourist destination. Indeed, Kazakhstan has already invested billions over the past decade in developing the tourism sector and hospitality infrastructure by building the image of the country as a major destination on the Great Silk Road. In addition, the government has introduced major financial initiatives to attract the largest players in the global tourism business, from leading international hotel chains and restaurant outlets to major construction and transportation companies.
THE RISE OF “NEW” GREAT SILK ROAD
Kazakhstan continues to work hard on building its new Silk Road infrastructure and placing its modern and medieval cities and ancient caravan-sarays (hotels) onto global tourist maps. Kazakhstan is the 3rd largest country on the historical Great Silk Road, after China and Russia, and has been a destination attracting almost half a million tourists from the UK alone since 2008. During past decade between 2011 and 2019, the local and national governments have begun to realise that they need not only to preserve the major attractions and historical sites, but also to considerably upgrade the entire tourism infrastructure, from building new hotels to renovating all airports, highways and railways to serve between five and eight million visitors a year. The tourism boom has not only opened numerous ancient and medieval archeological excavations and well-preserved major architectural monuments for local and international tourists, but has also attracted intensive foreign direct investments (FDIs) at the rate of almost one billion USD.
In promoting tourism, Kazakhstan has to compete with several large and well-known regional players in mass tourism, such as neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. To move the country to the foreground, national tourism experts and major local players have focused their efforts on developing three major areas.
Traditional tourism on the historical sites of the Great Silk Road. As part of the Great Silk Road for almost 2,000 years, Kazakhstan is rich in historical sites, which are scattered mainly along its southern rim from the border with China all the way to the Caspian Sea. Various estimates suggest that the country is home to the remnants of more than 100 ancient and medieval cities and towns and more than 1,000 other historical sites from ancient Buddhist temples to Nestorian Christian churches. Some of these have survived through millennia of the turbulent history of Central Asia and represent interesting examples of cultural exchanges on the Great Silk Road.
Take for example the city of Turkistan with its medieval mosque and mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi – a classic example of architecture from the time of medieval ruler Tamerlane (Timur). The ruins of a large medieval city – some scholars identify them with the medieval city of Kultube – are scattered over thousands of square meters, comparable in area to the remains of Italy’s ancient city of Pompei. Local experts ambitiously call it the “Pompei of Central Asia.”
Adventure tourism. Another area for niche tourism in which local companies and government-funded operators are investing tens of millions of US dollars is adventure tourism. The mountains of southern and eastern Kazakhstan offer amazing landscapes and hundreds of destinations for adventure tourists. This includes safari tours from simple short tours along the great nomadic steppe to very complex multi-week safari expeditions over various terrains and climate zones. Several rivers offer good opportunities for river rafting combined with the exploration of local fishing and hunting opportunities. The mountains around Almaty City offer numerous year-around opportunities – from hiking in summer to skiing in winter and spring. In fact, in geographic terms, these mountains present the best skiing opportunities in the whole area between New Delhi and Moscow!
Eco (green) tourism. Over the past decade Kazakhstan has emerged as a new destination for eco-tourism with visits to exceptional locations from fragile and pristine Alpine mountain valleys and river basins in the south to the unique forest and steppe zones in central and eastern Kazakhstan. The country is home to hundreds of endemic species, and nature enthusiasts not only can observe unique birds and animals (such as the gorgeous snow leopard), but also participate in the numerous campaigns directed at preserving Kazakhstan’s wild animals, birds and insects.
THE NEW SILK ROAD PARADIGM
The tourism business in Kazakhstan – which is growing at an impressive rate of 6-9 percent per annum – has a considerable potential. To fulfil this potential, it needs to attract all sorts of international experts and investors. Kazakhstan has already attracted top architects like Norman Foster from the UK and Kisho Kurokawa from Japan to help develop architectural marvels in the rapidly growing new capital – the city of Nursultan (formerly Astana). The country has also made a number of other strong moves in the right direction. First, recent regulatory changes such as waiving visas for tourists from almost 50 countries around the world has eased travels opportunities for many travelers, including business people and ordinary tourists. Second, the country successfully hosted World Expo-2017 in Astana and the 28th Winter Universiade Games in Almaty and these and many other regional and global events contribute to the fact that Kazakhstan has become one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in the region. Third, Kazakhstan has spent almost US$40 billion since 1997 in building up Nursultan City as a prime regional business, financial and banking hub, hoping to make it one of the major tourist destinations between Beijing and Moscow.
During the past decade Kazakhstan has become one of the growing major tourist destinations on the Great Silk Road and an attractive destination for investors and major players in the tourism sector from European countries including the UK. In fact, according to official statistics the government-initiated strategy “Tourism Industry Development Plan 2020” channeled about US$3 billion into the development of five tourism clusters and the creation of 300,000 new jobs in the tourism sector alone and climbing to the 81st place in the in the global tourism ranking (2018, World Tourism Organization (WTO). If successful the country indeed might become one of the major tourism destinations on the great Silk Road offering diverse tourism activities and absorbing billions of dollars in FDIs.
Rafis Abazov, PhD, is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University and a director of Ban Ki-moon Institute for Sustainable Development. He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007), The Stories of the Great Steppe (2013) and some others.
Andrey Khazbulatov, PhD, is an associate professor and research advisor for the archeological research and excavation project “The Hillfort of Kultube” in Turkestan City, Kazakhstan. He is the author of three monographs and numerous articles on cultural development in Kazakhstan.