KYRGYZSTAN TOURISM KEEPS EVOLVING
INTERVIEW WITH ELENA KALASHNIKOVA
Elena Kalashnikova was born in 1968 and has had an active and fulfilling life based around her love of travel, alpinism and diving. She graduated from Omsk State Educational Institute (Specialty: mathematics, computer science) in 1992 but realised that tourism was her passion that she wanted to dedicate her life to. She graduated from TURAN Institute (Specialty: Management in Tourism, Almaty) in 1998 and founded Ak Sai Travel Ltd. in Bishkek. This company gives its clients the chance to see the pure and pristine nature of Kyrgyz mountains. Elena has been awarded a national medal for the development of tourism in Kyrgyzstan.
Elena’s professionalism and experience led to her appointment, in 2012, as the president of the Kyrgyz Association of Tour Operators (KATO) – a non-profit organisation that defends the corporate interests of its members and the rights of its clients. The Association’s most important goal is the creation of a civilised tourism market and assistance in tourism industry development at the national level. Elena successfully managed KATO for more then ten years and promoted Kyrgyzstan as a destination for inbound and outbound markets. Both colleagues and clients notice positivity, kind attitude to people travelling and providing hospitality.
OCA: What are the priorities for Kyrgyz tourism, in terms of which countries they would like to attract and what age/type of people they are looking for, given that Kyrgyzstan has traditionally been known for adventure tourism, with activities such as backpacking in the wilderness?
Elena Kalashnikova: The Kyrgyz Republic is very diverse in terms of tourism opportunities. Adventure tourism is only one of the directions we’re going in, although you are right, the direction is very popular. In our country, 94% of the country’s territory is mountains, there are peaks that are above 7000 meters, which are attractive for climbers from all over the world. There are mountain hikes of varying difficulty – for both professionals and amateurs, people come for holidays on the beach – we have the wonderful lake Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world. There are cultural tours – the Great Silk Road passed through Kyrgyzstan, there are many ancient fortresses and familiar locations from historical chronicles. Therefore, traveling to the Kyrgyz Republic will be of interest to everyone, regardless of age and preferences. As for the tourists from which countries we would like to attract, primarily those from the European region, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. People from these countries have a good idea of what they want to see. And they have plenty to choose from. They are interested in Kyrgyzstan as a new direction. We have truly unique natural conditions. And, importantly, people are hospitable and ready to receive tourists.
For certain countries, adventure tourism is interesting. For tourists from the CIS – beach tourism, sanatorium treatment, and in the winter, skiing. Europeans are most attracted to the mountains – trekking, climbing and everything related to adventure. Therefore, we focus on these areas for them.
OCA: How are the government and promoters intending to market the region?
EK: The uniqueness of our country lies in the fact that we can offer a whole range in the types of tourism that a person can enjoy, and we must talk about them. To promote Kyrgyzstan, our Tourism Development Support Fund uses traditional methods. These are direct contacts with tour operators of other countries, participation in tourism exhibitions and fairs, with promotion of the country done through direct sales at these events, holding road-shows and fam-trips for the media and tour operators of other countries, interaction with organizations of compatriots abroad. The Foundation has already organized 11 national stands at the largest tourism exhibitions in the world. Each time presentations are held, dozens of meetings are organised, and contracts are concluded. Of course, we also promote through the Internet and social networks. But focusing solely on this is clearly not enough. Publications on the network can show what awaits a person, but, unfortunately, they do not convey emotions. Nothing replaces live communication when travelling to the country. Therefore, we need to establish as many personal contacts as possible.
OCA: Is cultural heritage a major draw for tourists and if so, what plans are there to develop this?
EK: If, speaking of cultural heritage, we mean fairy tales, legends, folk music and folklore, then, of course, yes. If we mean our nomadic culture that we still have and that we still value to this day – then of course, also yes. The Tourism Development Support Fund support yurt camps, for glamping even (providing comfortable campsites in our national style). Staying in them, you can feel the nomadic life of people who spend their time on the pastures, among grazing cattle. Kyrgyz national patterns and other traditional elements are used in the decor, in everyday clothes – and not only in our country. New York Mayor, Eric Adams, recently appeared in public wearing a Kyrgyz-made chapan. It is unusual and attractive, which means it is interesting.
OCA: Do specific events like the Nomad Games have a real impact on tourism?
EK: First, the World Nomad Games were primarily aimed at attracting tourists, and second, for the reproduction of the entire nomadic lifestyle that we have had for many centuries, with elements of national games, tastings of national dishes and drinks. Tourists are not interested when people are dressed in modern business suits, but they are interested in feathers or skins – something they don’t have at home. They go to Brazil for the carnival because it is fashionable, popular and interesting. When people talk about a carnival, they immediately associate it with bright clothes, music, and feathers. The Nomad games are associated with equestrian sports, archery, and yurts. Of course it’s interesting. And when American athletes play the Kyrgyz game “kok-boru”, it attracts attention. In Great Britain there are also national equestrian games, polo, for example, but they are different in our country. And the uniqueness of the product, is that we are reproducing what used happen many centuries ago, in this modern day and age. And not only reproducing, but carefully storing it and using it in everyday life.
OCA: From a personal point of view, what places do you think tourists should visit and are there any hidden gems that the world needs to know more about?
EK: There are a lot of interesting places, and it is simply impossible to see everything in one trip. When I travel, I don’t look for the popular locations, but at those that are of interest to the local population. And I try not to eat in restaurants with Michelin stars, but where local people dine. Only then can you get immersed in the authenticity of the region. We have a lot of places like this in Kyrgyzstan.
For centuries, our region has been very interesting for the people from China, India and other nearby countries. In Issyk-Kul, for example, there is the sunken ancient city of Chigu, the stones that Tamerlane spoke to. There was also a monastery where ancient Christian monks lived and where the relics of St. Matthew are kept. These days, some ruins of those places still remain. There are places from the era of the Karakhanids, for example the settlement of Suyab.
There are monuments from the time when the region was under the influence of Buddhists, for example, in Ysyk-Ata. Where did the statue of Buddha come from in the mountains? And who were the travelers who brought it and left it there?
OCA: How do you see tourism developing over the next five years in Kyrgyzstan? Are plans such as infrastructure development, a part of that?
EK: In my opinion, it’s quite important that the state does not interfere with the development of tourism, but instead assists, invests in infrastructural projects, and makes it easier to do business in the field of tourism. What does a tourist want? They want the procedure for obtaining a visa, if required, to be clear and easy. To start with the airport, it’s important to have clear directional signs. Along the way – different types of transport, not only private taxis, but also organized shuttles. They want to ensure that the food they eat is safe. And the task of the state, first and foremost, is to create conditions for all these norms to be observed. This is the ideal situation from a tourist’s point of view.
From the point of view of business, this includes construction, and the development of transport, and even tourist formalities for obtaining visas. Our Foundation is actively working on this. Across the country, the Foundation is building RestPoints, modern versions of ancient caravanserais along the Silk Road, where travellers stopped during their travels. These locations include a toilet, an information center, a souvenir shop and a charging station for electric vehicles. The first 21 of these locations will be ready this year, and there will be 68 in total. The Fund launched GoBus shuttle buses along popular routes – from the capital of the country, Bishkek, to Manas airport, on the coast of the Issyk-Kul Lake, to nearby natural parks. Another project of the Fund is the organisation and marking of eco-paths according to the standards of the World Tourism Organization, UNWTO. Infrastructure development is also needed in order for Kyrgyzstan to be included in the list of countries recommended for travel along the Great Silk Road.
The Foundation opened a call centre for tourists. The processes of obtaining permits to visit border zones, obtaining visas and registering tourists who come for a long time are all things that are being automated. By the way, Kyrgyzstan was the first in Central Asia to introduce a visa-free regime for citizens of certain countries. A lot is being done to make travelling to our country interesting and comfortable.
OCA: How does Kyrgyzstan ensure that its heritage is preserved while wanting to modernise?
EK: It is very important for us to preserve the spirit of our Kyrgyz people. For example, the same RestPoints that I mentioned are not just about modern toilets. These locations are authentically made, carefully preserving the spirit of the great nomads, resting places with a new sound and modern performance, the prototype of which was our famous Tash-Rabat caravanserai – they even look similar.
People in our country honour and cherish their age-old traditions. Tourists can join the nomadic lifestyle. They can ride horses, spend the night in yurts, or try medicinal koumiss (drink made from mare’s milk). They can observe traditional decorations and the unique design elements of yurts in almost every rural house. Enjoy our beautiful wildlife, but at the same time relax with the usual comfort. For example, in the vicinity of Bishkek, our Foundation has begun the construction of a large ski cluster. In terms of comfort, it will be comparable to the famous Alpine resorts. And at the same time, located in a stunningly beautiful and almost pristine location.
OCA: How are you planning on minimising the environmental impacts of increased tourism?
EK: Our tourism has not yet acquired such an industrial character as in developed European countries, where 60-70 million tourists visit annually. We are not ready for such a flood, it will simply trample our country. Therefore, we need to think ahead, use someone else’s experience. In developed countries, during the period of the sharp industrial boom, the situation with the environment was also deplorable. But then they began to strictly regulate both emissions and the negative impact of various industrial enterprises, and everything returned to normal. Minimizing the environmental impact is very important for our Fund. For example, when we started building RestPoint, we immediately stipulated that they should be environmentally friendly – with competent, thoughtful treatment facilities, with electric heating, with charging for electric vehicles.
It is important for us to preserve the stunningly beautiful nature of our country, which is worth visiting from far away. Kyrgyzstan is also a wonderful destination because here you can plan any kind of tourist route, for every taste, even one where you won’t meet with other people. And we need to keep this unique advantage, so that everyone can experience the incredible beauty of Kyrgyzstan.