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Kyrgyz Tourism Hopes Dashed

Bishkek government plans to boost foreign visitors fall flat leaving many tourist traders empty-handed.
By IWPR

Women who flocked to Kyrgyzstan's lakeside resorts this summer in the hope of earning a bit of extra cash during the official Year of Tourism have had their hopes dashed, after the promised tourism boom failed to materialise.


The experience of 34-year-old Intizara was typical. She had leased a "yurta", a Kyrgyz traditional tent dwelling, on the outskirts of Bozteri village, in the centre of the holiday-makers area.


She risked her investment - the tent costs 1500 soms ($31) a month - because her daughter needs medical treatment. "My 6-year-old daughter urgently needs heart surgery," she said. "I have to get $2,000 by the autumn. My sisters are helping me here, but in the month we have been here, we have earned nothing. I just hope there will be a late influx of holiday-makers and we will collect the money."


Lake Issyk-Kul is lined with similar tents, some parked in hotel grounds and on children's campsites. Each offers local and European cuisine, the national beverage, Kumys, and Western drinks like Coca-Cola.


Normally, the locals would be in charge. But this year people from all over the country have poured in, drawn by promises of government "action" in the Year of Tourism.


Baktigul left her husband and four children in Bishkek and borrowed a summer yurta from relatives. Since June 8, she has been waiting for customers to show up in Kyrgyz Coastal Waters, a well-known holiday home, which in Soviet days hosted the party elite and even cosmonauts from Moscow. "Half my neighbours in Bishkek believed all the promises about the Year of Tourism and locked up their homes in search of summer earnings along Issyk-Kul lake," said Baktigul.


"We wanted to make enough before the school year to buy textbooks and children's clothes but it looks like we were taken in. The Year of Tourism was just a slogan, like the Year of Women last year and the Year of the Elderly before that."


The other women still hope the situation will improve. "In spite of everything, every night we make preparations for the next day, roasting, frying and boiling. If no customers show up we eat all the food ourselves," Baktigul said.


There are at least 15 other tent dwellings next to Baktigul's yurta-canteen and a clutch of hastily erected cafes. In the grounds of Kyrgyz Coastal Waters, there are another dozen feeding spots. It is difficult to imagine how many tourists the authorities thought were going to use them, given that holiday homes and hotels provide package tour customers three meals a day.


Tourists from Kazakstan sunning themselves on the beach say they would not eat in the yurtas even if they were starving. "The women fetch water in buckets and then throw out the dirty water right next to the tent," one said. "Anyone can see the food is not prepared cleanly."


The growth in yurtas is driven by the greed of the resort directors, who charge each one 1,500 - 2,000 soms ($31-42) per month. More than 100 resort facilities have obtained licenses to serve tourists on Issyk-kul this year.


The authorities insist their only aim was to boost employment. Mukhtar Akunov, tourism boss for the region, said the tents started springing up all along the lakeside in 1995. "We have made some mistakes," he said, "but for the Year of Tourism we organised a competition for yurtas, based on their design quality. Only the winners got permission to serve food along the Issyk-Kul - Bishkek highway."


The tourist chief's claim is undermined by the fact that many of the tents are totally unremarkable, while their managers freely admit they only got permission to open cafes with the help of relatives and acquaintances.


In the overgrown grounds of the hotel Ilbirs, not far from the beach, there are 30 yurtas. Janyl, a maths teacher from the neighbouring Naryn region, has also been driven into the holiday business by desperation. "I have three daughters and the second is taking university exams," she said. "We want to earn money for her studies but I have had few holiday-makers in my tent."


A group of other women gather round. When asked why only women take responsibility for boosting family earnings, they say they are better at these kind of jobs than men. Gulnara, from Bishkek, says Kyrgyz society is old fashioned in its expectations of women's role. "I always felt guilty I was not a boy," she said. "I had to do all the chores at home. When my two brothers were born my parents were so happy that they constantly pampered them and they never had to do a thing. They grew up to be very lazy."


Such attitudes date back to the years after the Second World War, when there was an acute shortage of men. In the meantime, thousands of unemployed women, worried that their men will not be able to support them, work in marketplaces in Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Kazakstan, while others wait for the promised wave of tourists on the beaches of Issik-Kul.


Beside each yurta stands a woman with sad eyes, missing her children and fearful of the outcome of her tourist business. "The authorities are promising a Year of Mountains next time," one said. "It looks like we will have to install our yurtas up there and then maybe we will earn something for our children."


Venera Jumataeva is a RFE/RL correspondent in Bishkek.


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