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Uzbek Tourist Drive

Tashkent attempts to cash in on the country's rich cultural heritage
By Solekh Akhiaev

The blue domes of Samarkand, staging posts on the fabled Silk Road, bear testament to the tourist potential of impoverished Uzbekistan.

But as determined travellers brave post-Soviet bureaucracy and poor quality service, the government's aim of creating a thriving tourism industry remains a dream.

The rich history of Uzbekistan ensures a steady stream of intrepid visitors keen to explore ancient cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Shakhrisabz.

In 1999, according to the state agency Uzbektourism, 274,000 foreign tourists visited the country, generating US$ 25.5 million in hard currency. Last year, the number is said to have risen by 30,000, generating an extra US $2 million.

But this is just a drop in the ocean of the global tourism industry, now worth US$ 500-600 billion a year. The United States earns an annual US$ 45 billion. And Turkey generates US$ 16-20 billion a year.

European countries like France, UK, Italy and Germany earn about US$ 15-16 billion from tourism annually. Even in other CIS countries, revenues are substantial - amounting to US$ 8.5 billion in Russia and US$ 6.5 billion in Ukraine.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov understands this and wants a bigger slice of the pie. He has taken personal responsibility for the development of tourism and wants it to start bringing the country greater profits.

"While studying the experience of other countries, we realised that tourism can increase revenue flowing into the country, thus helping the economy," said Nemat Abdulaev, First Deputy Chairman of Uzbektourism.

Karimov has cultural resources to match his ambitions. According to UzbekTourism, the country has more than 4,000 sites of great tourist interest and potential.

In Samarkand, the capital of the 14th century Mogul warlord Tamerlane, ancient mosques decorated with complex sky-blue mosaics abound and his mausoleum, the blue-domed Gur-Emir, remains one of the finest examples of Islamic craftsmanship.

Bukhara, with a history dating back more than 2,500 years, also has a wealth of fine mosques and palaces, while Khiva, where Ghengis Khan once held sway, has been called an outdoor museum.

But to explore these wonders, tourists have to endure poor service, constant problems with the lack of hygiene in food preparation, little information in their own languages and restrictions on their movement.

"We are impressed by the historic heritage of Samarkand, but, unfortunately, there are some deficiencies in service," said Steve Khan, a tourist from the United States.

"It is difficult to obtain information in English about tourist attractions and the work of guides and interpreters is not organized properly."

Tourists complain of low standards at Uzbekistan's airports, where long customs procedures and document checks are a commonplace.

Food is also a problem. Many tourists say that they would have tried Uzbek national cuisine in traditional "chaikhanas" (tea-houses), but they are concerned that these places do not satisfy acceptable norms of hygiene.

In recent years, several luxurious hotels have been built, where a night's accommodation costs up to US$ 240. But if a tourist should want a less expensive option, he will not even be guaranteed cold water to wash with.

Running water is often limited to certain parts of the day even at established tourist sites.

Uzbektourism's Abdulaev agrees that the tourism infrastructure in Uzbekistan is not developed properly. Over the next four years, he says the government plans to build smaller hotels, renovate the country's airports, maintain roads and highways, improve telephone lines, and buy modern large buses and mini-vans to carry small groups of tourists.

But so far, these remain just plans and tourists have to struggle to see the historic sights of Uzbekistan.

In addition to infrastructure problems, Uzbekistan's worsening political situation is also likely to put off tourists.

After the Tashkent bombings in 1999 when 16 people died and a number of governmental buildings were destroyed, some western countries warned their nationals not to travel to Uzbekistan.

The armed group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, whose leaders were accused of being behind the bombings, declared war on the Tashkent authorities, with the aim of establishing a Moslem state in the country.

Later that year, they launched armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan demanding a corridor into Uzbek territory. Some members of the group penetrated deep into Uzbek territory, clashing with troops just 100 km from Tashkent.

The chairman of UzbekTourism, Bakhtior Khusanbaev, has tried to put a brave face on the militant threat, claiming the IMU's activities have not led to a significant fall in the number of tourists visiting the country. "The incursions are limited to remote mountainous areas where there are no tourists," he said.

That may be the case, but the Uzbek authorities have nonetheless been forced to introduce stricter security measures which has meant that independent travel in the country is virtually impossible.

Solekh Akhiaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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