Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan Losing Tourism Appeal

Political instability and poor facilities combine to put the dampners on the Kyrgyz tourist industry.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

The government boasts that former president of the CIS Boris Yeltsin will be among the VIPs to holiday at the Kyrgyz resort of Lake Issyk-Kul this year, but such high profile visitors can't mask the fact that the tourist industry is not living up to expectations.


Last year 612,000 foreign tourists visited the republic. This year 700,000 were expected, but a combination of political instability and poor services look set to keep the numbers down.


Kyrgyzstan certainly has the makings of a tourist paradise. The republic has some of the highest mountains in the world, including Pobeda and Lenin. Sights of outstanding natural beauty include the Indilchek glacier, Lake Issyk-Kul and the nut tree forests of Arslanbob.


Visitors can also enjoy unique medicinal mud baths, mineral and thermal springs. Ecologically, parts of the landscape are totally pure, virtually untouched by civilisation. Yet every new tourist season never fails to disappoint.


In March, as Kyrgyz travel agents tried to promote the country at an international tourism fair in Berlin, massive protests against the government began in the Aksy region in the south of the country. News that highways had been blockaded and civilians killed in clashes with police undermined their efforts to attract new visitors.


By June, the tourist industry was moved to make a direct appeal to Kyrgyz citizens, urging them to find a peaceful solution to their grievances. Otherwise, they warned, tourism would be blighted for years to come.


"These events give an advantage to competitors such as Kazakstan and Turkey, who want to entice our clients away from us," said Pavel Kharlamov, head of the Glavtur travel agency.


Joint ventures with a number of foreign partners, he went on, have now been postponed, "Most of our partners are now having second thoughts. We are doing our best to convince them that everything here is fine and there is no civil war."


Ecologist Kulubek Bokonbaev notes that the recent troubles are not the first blow the country's emergent tourism industry has had to face. In the Barskaun tragedy of 1991, the Issyk Kul lake was contaminated with cyanide.


And just as people were getting over that catastrophe, the rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan began launching cross-border attacks on the Batken region. The 1999 raids are still mentioned by the German foreign ministry website, which warns visitors to avoid the south of the republic.


According to Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, perceived instability in the country has prompted around 1,000 Russian tourists to cancel holidays in the Issyk-Kul lake region, while 300 mountaineers from western Europe have put off plans to climb Mount Lenin.


Political unrest is not wholly to blame for the lack of visitors, however.


Power shortages, poor street lighting, a high crime rate, with no provisions made to protect tourists from possible attack, make the republic a "risky" destination in more ways than one.


Lack of capital investment since 1991 has left over 80 per cent of the existing tourism infrastructure badly in need of modernisation. Fading hammers and sickles still adorn many of the lakeside resorts left over from the Soviet era.


Even the Altin-Kol holiday home, owned by the Kyrgyz parliament, is crumbling with age and insufficiently equipped to receive visitors. With no capital available to restore it, deputies have been reduced to appealing to the parliaments of Russia, Kazakstan and Tajikistan for funds to help them rebuild it, according to deputy Ishenbai Moldotashev.


The resorts might be out of date, but since they were privatised, tourists have been charged thoroughly modern prices to stay there. A day at one of the Issyk-Kul holiday centres costs from 70 to 150 US dollars, about the same price charged for a far more modern resort in Turkey.


Not surprisingly, foreign tourists opt for the latter, as did parliamentary deputy Kubatbek Baibolov last summer. This year he also plans to travel abroad. "Holiday homes in Kyrzgystan offer no service or comfort," he said.


Beyond the resorts, the general level of decay is off-putting for tourists, says deputy Vladimir Tolokontsev. "It's all very well to blame political problems, but how do we cover the lack of an infrastructure and the pot-holes in the roads?" he asks.


Even Lyudmila Akmatova, head of the State Tourism Committee admitted, "The transport, communications and services here do not come up to present day standards."


In an effort to try and woo holidaymakers, the government has at least removed some of the onerous bureaucracy, which tourists once had to contend with.


The visa requirement for overland visitors, which especially affected those who came from neighbouring Central Asian states, has been suspended for 28 countries. Nor will foreigner be required any longer to go through a compulsory registration process on their arrival in the country.


But some argue that a far more imaginative approach is required. While bringing its facilities up to modern western standards, the country should not overlook its own unique historical and cultural identity, said Turusbek Mamashev, head of the Dasmiya travel agency.


"Last year, we had a lot of tourists from Europe and Japan, who came to see the daily life, culture and cuisine of the Kyrgyz people, " he said.


"Japanese tourists were very interested in our yurts, the national dwelling of the Kyrgyz. They filmed and photographed everything. They enjoyed learning about such an ancient and unique people."


Cholpon Orozobekova is an independent journalist