“Just bring us guests”. It’s a familiar phrase among tourism providers in countries developing tourism. But are they ready for the guests? Barnaby Davies and Sjannie Hulsman, co-owners of EastguidesWest, a Dutch training and consulting company, have just returned from speaking on sustainability at Samarkand Tourism Forum (STF). They have insights into the key changes and challenges in the tourism sector.

On the plus side, Uzbekistan is growing on world travellers’ radars. Relatively unknown in 2018, the National PR-Centre under the tourism committee has done wonders in promoting ancient cities and beauty ; Uzbekistan has a striking presence at World Travel Market, London ; and Joanna Lumley has waxed lyrical in her 2018 documentary Silk Road Adventure.
Despite the positive PR and statistics, a key challenge remains : perceived safety. Davies, from UK, texted his 13-year-old son while in Samarkand. “I’m training local guides in Uzbekistan this week. Here’s a photo of Registan Square – isn’t it stunning?!” Five minutes later a response comes back : “My mum says it’s dangerous there.”

This is an ongoing hurdle for the Stans. But not an insuperable hurdle. Word of Mouth and an increase in first-hand experiences in Central Asia are proving powerful. Davies’ simple Facebook post promoting safety and beauty elicited a barrage of positive responses from UK travellers with Uzbekistan firmly on their bucket lists.

What about infrastructure? It’s often regarded as crucial for tourism to thrive, and many locals pointed out poor roads and slow, local trains as an obstacle to growth. But EastguidesWest disagrees. It’s about managing expectations. Get that right, and guests will happily go to the ends of the earth on poor roads, sleep in simple accommodation and eat with their fingers. An off-the-beaten-track adventure, all without precious Wifi.

However, entice guests with a glossy brochure and then disappoint them? That’s where tours, reputations, and referrals drop off a cliff. Tourism is a fragile industry.

In Samarkand there were multiple communication issues, the first being language. Davies and Hulsman hooked up with Floridian Gregory Schaefer, operator of Basque Bites, a food tour company in San Sebastian, Spain. There were other Europeans and Americans there too.

Attending breakout workshops, they were disappointed that the sessions were in…Russian. While the perfect bridge language in the region, if the goal is to attract more Western guests, then English is essential. Fortunately, Ravshan Turkalov, co-founder of STF and owner of Silk Road Destinations has understood this issue. STF in February 2025 is already being planned to be more attractive for Western buyers and speakers.

Another key challenge is communication of itinerary and timings. STF side events were written as messages on Telegram, accessible to some, but not all. For foreigners there was an air of uncertainty on what was happening and where.

While it may appear romantic for a tour to start ‘at some point’ from a caravanserai in Central Asia, this approach alienates many Western guests. Davies and Hulsman have led thousands of tours in Europe as tour directors for Europeans and Americans. If a bus is scheduled to leave at 8am, wheels are rolling at 8am. Guests are boarding 10-15 minutes before in anticipation.

In Central Asia, “we are leaving at 8am” often turns into 8.30am or later. The result? The guests that were ready at 7.45am are now fed up and are already thinking about bathrooms. When are the bathrooms? How long is the drive? All of this information – effectively tackled in a Welcome Briefing – is lacking throughout Central Asia. But it is an easy fix. Training in a Western mindset, training in guest expectations and training in service excellence.

Meeting these challenges head on is Turkalov. Not only has he co-founded STF, but he has set up the Silk Road Training Academy for tour guides in Samarkand. Using the Blue Badge Guides in London as a yardstick, there is still a long way to go in levelling up soft skills. But the journey has started.

The ongoing challenge now is sourcing top-down support for training from the government, not just in Uzbekistan but throughout the whole region. Practical education in service excellence, plus international consultancy and destination promotion, can’t be funded by the private sector alone.

by Barnaby Davies,
Founder of EastguidesWest consulting company