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Kyrgyz Tourist Drive 'Flops'

Bishkek struggles to persuade foreigners to visit the country
By Igor Grebenshchikov

President Askar Akaev declared that 2001 would be the year to establish Kyrgystan as a holiday destination.


But the tourist sector has not been helped by repeated government warnings of renewed conflict on its border with Tajikistan. War and tourism do not mix.


Since the beginning of the year, the state-owned Kyrgyz media have played up reports of imminent military activity in the country's southern Batken region.


The press have referred frequently to reports produced by the German intelligence service BND, predicting that the arrival of spring would herald a deterioration in the situation in Central Asia.


Officials declared there was a real danger of a new invasion of members of the shadowy rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.


"If military action begins in the Batken region again, it will become impossible even to think about tourists from Europe and other foreign countries," complained Piotr Kharlamov, commercial director of the tourist agency Golavtour.


The military threat was deliberately exaggerated, say government critics, for two reasons. Firstly, to encourage countries like Russia and the US to supply Bishkek more military equipment and weapons, on favourable financial conditions. And secondly, to persuade the Kyrgyz leadership to increase the defence ministry's budget. "The government has been exaggerating the problem," said Kubatbek Baibolov, a retired KGB colonel, now an entrepreneur and parliamentary deputy, but he says the authorities began to backtrack when they realised their tactics would harm tourism.


On May 24, the deputy head of the national security service, Miroslav Niazov, announced that the anticipated invasion of the gunmen into southern Kyrgyzstan would probably not take place this year.


But many in the tourist industry believe that this announcement came too late. "Even if now we start saying that there is no threat whatsoever, nobody will believe us," said Baibolov.


Now they say they've shelved the insurgency problem, the government is turning to the task of attracting more visitors. Officials even say that they expect an increase of around 25 per cent on last year's figures.


But to increase the number of foreigners, more money needs to be invested into the tourism sector.


Most of the country's 600,000 annual visitors come from the region. The government wants to encourage Europeans and Americans as it is keen to get its hands on their hard currency.


"We should be looking to cater for people with much higher expectations, " said Baibolov. "We should be constructing new comfortable resort facilities - and in order to do so we should be creating favourable conditions for foreign investors."


Foreign tourist businesses share this opinion. "Tourism in Kyrgyzstan is very far from meeting international standards," noted Berndt-Christian Hyckel, the Central Asian representative for the Union of Entrepreneurs of Thuringia, in Germany.


Local tourism companies have tried to make up for the shortcomings of the holiday infrastructure by focusing on the country's historical lure. Tour-operator Piotr Kharlamov said, "We try to compensate for lack of comfort with exotic programs related to culture and traditions of nomadic peoples."


Because Kyrgyzstan is almost unknown abroad, tourist firms try to promote the country as the 'Great Silk Route'. Foreigners frequently confuse Kyrgyzstan with Kurdistan, leading to unfavourable associations with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.


For this reason, tour operators often refuse to use the word Kyrgyzstan in their promotional materials and use the word 'Kyrgyzland' instead.


Private tourist firms are trying all they can to attract visitors, but they would like to see more support from the state in advertising the country as a holiday destination.


The instability in the Batken region, however, will continue to pose problems for those trying to sell the country to holiday-makers.


"The events in Batken very seriously hinder the development of tourism in Kyrgyzstan," Berndt-Christian Hyckel said. 'This is especially true with regard to attracting tourists from Europe."


Kyrgyz tour-operators believe the government should get its priorities sorted out - and will have to decide whether getting more military assistance is more important than promoting the country as the sort of place foreigners might want to visit.


Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor


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