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Kyrgyzstan: Mountain Rescue Boost for Tourism

Officials hope that a dedicated response team will turn the republic’s majestic peaks into a magnet for climbers from across the world.
By Gulnura Toralieva

The Kyrgyz government is setting up a national rescue service to save climbers who run into trouble scaling the country’s alpine peaks.

The proposed agency will take on overall responsibility for tourists who come to Kyrgyzstan for adventure sports such as climbing, by registering the details of their trip and monitoring their progress through a series of checkpoints.

Tourist agencies - who will now be required to provide the rescue service with the names of their clients engaging in risky sports - applauded the move, saying it could be a boon for the country’s fledgling tourist industry.

“Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country. If we want to develop tourism, it is essential to have a state service that will organise rescue work effectively,” said Vladimir Komissarov, president of Association of Tourist Operators of the Silk Road.

The head of Kyrgyzstan’s tourism department, Akbar Jigitov, told IWPR that the service - which should be in place by next summer - will be funded by mandatory insurance policies taken out by climbers, snowboarders and other extreme sports enthusiasts before they are allowed on the mountains.

The announcement of a national rescue service comes following the death last month of a Russian climber in southern Kyrgyzstan. So far this year, eight climbers have died on the republic’s mountains, and two have gone missing.

On average, three to four climbers have disappeared every year since the collapse of the Soviet-era mountain rescue system, which most agree worked well.

That rescue service was financed by trade unions, and all climbers were required to register when they arrived at mountain camps. They were only allowed to begin the climb after their equipment had been checked and they had been given training.

If the group did not return to base camp by a certain time, a team was automatically sent out to find them.

When that system collapsed along with the Soviet Union, the responsibility for saving climbers was divided between the travel agencies who organised the climbs and the government’s ministry for ecology and emergency situations, MEES, which does not have a dedicated mountain rescue team.

Neither the agencies nor the state have worked together to coordinate their efforts, with both sides insisting the other take full responsibility for saving climbers. The problem was exacerbated by the emergence of a number of often-unqualified climbing trip agencies, which employed staff who lacked mountain training or guiding experience.

“We need to make a fundamental re-examination of the system of letting people climb mountains,” said Jigitov. “People should be taken to the mountains by professionals, and if this is not possible, then it should not be done.”

MEES has also accused the travel companies of being irresponsible, alleging that some send climbers off to the mountains without making the most basic provisions for their safety, and then expect the government to come to the clients’ rescue if an accident should occur.

In the case of Sergei Fetisov, the Russian climber who died in an avalanche in Karakul in the Jalalabad region on November 3, he and his group were climbing unaccompanied when the tragedy happened. The accident was reported to MEES five days later, when the three survivors reached Karakul, and Fetisov’s body was recovered on November 10.

MEES official Sergei Stepanov told IWPR that while a local travel agency had booked the Russians’ trip, it was the government agency which had carried out the recovery mission.

“We are not a travel agency able to accompany every tourist,” Stepanov said. “No one even tells us who is planning to make a climb, or when. Travel agencies make a lot of money from this so they should rescue their clients themselves.”

For their part, travel agencies say they can’t afford to save climbers in trouble - particularly those who have refused to take basic safety precautions.

A centralised rescue service is therefore a good idea, said Viacheslav Aleksandrov, director of the Edelveis tourist firm.

“When many alpinists go out on their own and various unexpected situations happen, they start calling tourist firms they may have rented transport or equipment from, and ask them for help,” he said.

“However, it is costly to organise such support so state support is definitely needed. Only time will tell how such a service would work.”

Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. Marina Bashmanova is an IWPR trainee in Bishkek.

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