With the main beaches and resort areas of the Soviet Union thousand of kilometers away on the shores of the Baltic and the Black Sea, Soviet authorities after the Second World War were looking for a suitable spot to relax workers living in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul lake, blessed with glorious mountain views, sandy beaches and hot-water springs, was chosen as a prime tourism development site.
Since that time, the sanatoriums on Issyk-Kul, mostly in and around the town of Cholpon-Ata on the northern shore, have attracted beach-lovers and health enthusiasts from the region every summer holiday. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tourism business fell on hard times, but renovations to some of the hotels and a rise in economic fortune in Kazakhstan brought the tourists back in large numbers. The summer season is short on Issyk-Kul, but the foreign currency it brings in sustains a lot of people around the lake, from taxi drivers and craftspeople to waitresses and shop owners.
Currently valued at 9% of GDP, tourism is considered to be one of the most promising industries in Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyz government has identified tourism as a priority sector for its development program.
Tourism is a source of hope for impoverished Kyrgyzstan–a tiny state desperate for foreign currency, and where according to labor migration trends most people want to get out instead of in. Unfortunately, most evidence seems to say that the tourism industry is heading in the wrong direction.
A recent article on Eurasianet highlights the plight of Issyk-Kul’s hospitality industry. The permanent rumbles surrounding the Kumtor mine remind tourists of the 2010 revolution and persuaded many to avoid Kyrgyzstan for their beach holiday this year. Add to that an unusually rainy July and it paints a bleak picture for the 2013 tourist season in Kyrgyzstan. That is unfortunate for the people involved as well as for state coffers, but the bigger question is:
Once the protests subside and the sun starts shining again over Issyk-Kul, will the tourists return?
Kazakhs heading for a different sun
When talking about tourism in Kyrgyzstan, in reality we are still talking to a large extent about the resorts on Issyk-Kul’s northern shore (accounting for 60-70% of all tourism activity). Kazakhs have always made up the majority of tourists at these resorts, and it is my belief that, in the coming years, they will not return en masse as before.
First of all, they have discovered other destinations. During the 2010 summer revolution in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhs, pressed for an alternative, noticed they had beaches of their own. Koktuma on Lake Alakol, 7 hours north of Almaty, has rapidly grown from a sleepy backwater into a buzzing resort town. Other lakes close to Almaty like Esik, Kapchagai and Balkhash have also seen visitor numbers surge. In the north, with the growth of Astana has come the need to develop holiday destinations around the capital like Borovoye and Bayanaul, and like Astana, these places have seen serious investment over the last few years. Expo 2017 will only increase the building frenzy in the north.
Caption: Plans for future development of Borovoye lake near Astana, in the run-up to Expo 2017 – Source: http://kaveik.kz/userfiles/Image/2.jpg
With improved infrastructure in place Kazakhs can now holiday cheaper and with less travel time in their own country.
Caption: The summer crowd at Alakol beach – no longer a sleepy backwater
Secondly, the growing Kazakh middle-class now has the spending power to travel further abroad, and recently, the appearance of low-cost airlines and charter flights have decreased the price to travel in and out of Central Asia significantly. For not much more money than it would cost to relax in Issyk-Kul, Kazakhs can now be whisked away to a Turkish beach and bask in the attention of hot Turkish waiters, or fly to Goa with the infamous SCAT airlines and have king prawns every day.
While room rates have gone up at Issyk-Kul, service levels have stayed the same, and Kazakh holidaymakers have found better value for money.
Caption: outdated infrastructure on Issyk-Kul
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Issyk-Kul has an image problem. To Kazakhs, Issyk-Kul is dangerous: the locals are known for attempts at robbery and sexual assault. While some of the reports are overblown and can be ascribed to a chauvinist or nationalist attitude towards Kyrgyz, a large part of those problems are definitely real, and cannot easily be swept under the rug.
Tackling crime on the shores of Issyk-Kul is an important part of sustaining tourist growth in Kyrgyzstan; not just to attract the Kazakh visitors of before, but also to not scare off the new tourists the country aims to attract.
Who else wants to come?
The visa-free regime for citizens of countries with high GDP has given Kyrgyzstan a boost with Western tourists, but what kind of boost? Quite a significant one, if we are to believe the figures. The number of German tourists went up with 30% in the first 6 months of 2013, boasts the Department of Tourism. But, what does that mean concretely?
As it turns out, that’s a rise from 700 to 1017 tourists. That’s not enough to replace 1,1 million Kazakhs.
Another problem with the pivot towards the western market is the type of tourists Kyrgyzstan is currently attracting: mostly young adventurous backpackers. While their numbers are growing, a smattering of frugal French cycle tourists and Polish hitchhikers cannot balance out the loss of throngs of spend-thrifty Kazakh holidaymakers. Although westerners give a welcome boost to Community Based Tourism, they don’t raise GDP in a way the big resorts and mass tourism around Cholpon-Ata can.
While Kyrgyzstan might one day hope to develop into a tourist attraction for westerners like similarly poor-but-beautiful Nepal, that day is still far away without an icon like Mount Everest and a tourist magnet like India nearby. In the short term, Kyrgyzstan needs mass tourism from the neighbours.
With Kazakhs going elsewhere and rich westerners still too few in numbers, where should Kyrgyzstan look for foreigners to enjoy its nature and pump foreign currency into the economy?
Russians from Siberia and Uzbeks from Tashkent, as well as a small bunch of Tajiks from Dushanbe come to Issyk-Kul. Increasing their numbers is perhaps the easiest and quickest way to fill up the resorts once again. Promoting the winter season at the ski resort in Karakol to neighbouring countries is another option. Attracting the urban middle class Chinese from Urumqi to travel east instead of west for their beach holiday in an exotic but close-by environment is a far-fetched alternative.
Besides these alternatives, seducing Kazakhs again is the way forward for Kyrgyzstan’s ailing tourist sector. Unlike in Soviet times, people have options now, and tourists are in no way guaranteed to come unless Kyrgyzstan’s tries its best to compete with other holiday destinations. Improving the security situation at Issyk-Kul and upgrading service levels inside and around the resorts will go a long way towards this goal.
So, are foreigners good or bad? The ambivalence in the nationalist rhetoric
Kyrgyzstan’s natural resources are its economy’s saving grace, but selling them off to foreigners is a hot topic in Kyrgyzstan. According to some nationalist politicians, the ecological purity of Kyrgyzstan must not be tainted by foreign companies coming to rape the land and take out the riches. Instead, Kyrgyzstan should nationalise its mines, keep the money at home and protect the environment itself. According to the nationalist camp, foreigners should come simply as tourists, and enjoy Kyrgyzstan’s beautiful landscapes without digging them.
Consequently, they mobilize supporters to protest the “foreign plundering,” and future investors are scared of putting money into Kyrgyzstan’s economy, afraid of being nationalised or drawn into a morass of corruption.
If resource nationalism is preventing foreign companies from investing in the mining industry, then, is it perhaps also blocking the way for tourists to come and relax in Kyrgyzstan’s nature?
The ambivalence in the attitude towards foreigners and Kyrgyzstan’s greatest treasure – its environment – is difficult to resolve. Why should people be hostile towards companies “trashing up the place,” but friendly towards tourists doing the same (because unfortunately not all tourists leave only footprints and take only memories)? One can easily see how an overdeveloped sense of national pride may evolve into hostility towards foreign tourists.
Steven Hermans writes about travel in Central Asia at Caravanistan.