Instability spells disaster for Kyrgyzstan's tourist industry

By bne IntelliNews November 10, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Bishkek -

This year's political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan has proved a disaster for the country's tourism industry and any hope of a recovery next year are slim due to the continued risk of instability in the country.

Lake Issyk-Kul, the high alpine lake known locally as the "pearl of the Tian-Shan," was one of the top holiday destinations in the Soviet era. Tourists from Russia, Uzbekistan and especially nearby Kazakhstan still flock to the resorts surrounding the lake, where they are now joined by a small but growing number of western tourists.

However, the April revolution and the deadly ethnic clashes that followed put off the vast majority of tourists expected in Kyrgyzstan this summer. Just as things seemed to be returning to normal, the news broke in early August that an armed group from Balychky, the impoverished town on the lake's western tip, was headed for Bishkek. The road between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul was temporarily blocked after supporters of Urmat Baryktabasov, leader of the Meken Tuu party, seized weapons from police and announced plans to travel down to the people's congress taking place in the capital. Although the crisis was defused, it was the final nail in the coffin for this year's holiday season.

Official data has not yet been published, but the decline in visitors is estimated to be at least 50%, and possibly up to 90%. "The tourist season was seriously negatively affected. Around 80% of bookings were cancelled. Other forms of tourism - cultural, nomadic, mountaineering - were also affected," says Kuban Ashyrkulov, executive director of the International Business Council.

Asylbek Rajiev, executive director of the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association, Hospitality Kyrgyzstan, says that 80-90% of the organisation's bookings were cancelled, with the number of cancellations as high as 99% in the south of the country.

Filling the rooms

One consolation for hotels in the cities of Bishkek and Osh is that consultants and aid workers have flocked to the country, occupying many of the rooms normally used by tourists. "2010 was not a good year, but it wasn't as bad as we feared. We did around one-third of our usual business," says Ian Claytor, general director of the Celestial Mountains Tour Company. Claytor's company has survived two revolutions and he has no plans to quit the country.

In the Issyk-Kul region, where tourism is the main source of income, local holidaymakers took the place of international tourists to some extent. Residents of Bishkek and the southern Kyrgyz cities were pleasantly surprised to find that hotels were no longer block booked and that prices were slashed to a fraction of their usual levels. However, even though the region saw an influx of local tourists, the cutting of prices means trouble later in the year. "Hotel owners took the view that quantity was what mattered, but the problem at Issyk-Kul is that people have to earn enough during the summer - the high season lasts just 40 days - to sustain them for the rest of the year. During this time they have to make as much money as they can to cover food, heating, land tax, property tax, security, maintenance and all their other expenses for 12 months," Claytor says.

Not only did hoteliers cut their prices, the other people who supply goods to visitors also did badly. Unlike the free-spending Kazakhs and Russians, locals tend to load up their cars with everything from tinned food to vodka before heading up to Issyk-Kul, and so have a much smaller impact on the local economy. The market for souvenirs has also disappeared. "This year we have big problems. We usually sell our products to tourists, but because of the revolution there are very few people to buy them," says Sariya Zheldosbaeva, who runs a women's collective that makes traditional felt products in Naryn oblast.

Cloudy outlook

With 2010 a write-off, the concern is now about the future. Even though the October 2010 elections went off smoothly, there are fears of long-term damage to the tourist industry. "The bond may already be broken," says Claytor. "People have already been enticed away. For Almaty residents, for example, it costs little more to spend a week in Turkey than a week in Issyk-Kul, and there is no need to queue for hours on the border, or risk being stopped by the traffic police."

The Kyrgyz government has taken some steps to encourage tourism including issuing an order that police can only stop cars if something is visibly wrong, but many in the tourist industry say the only hope is for more government support to rebuild the country's battered image. "After the June and April events, the image of Kyrgyzstan suffered badly. We have lost people for several years, we don't expect the situation to return to normal in 2011 or 2012, even if there is political stability," says Rajiev. "The government should guarantee safety. We need the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to back a united effort to promote tourism in Kyrgyzstan, and steps should be taken to make it easy to travel in Kyrgyzstan, for example by cancelling tourist visas."

The cost of travel to Central Asia from Western Europe and the Far East is another deterrent. Plans to launch a new low-cost airline as a joint venture with Turkey's Pegasus were shelved after the revolution.

Tourism has long been touted as a high-potential industry in Kyrgyzstan, and there have been some successes over the years. Issyk-Kul has developed greatly in the level of comfort and sophistication. While this is the main attraction, tourists have also ventured to other areas, including mountain climbing, hunting and trekking. Community-based tourism has grown up, with the largest firm - Hospitality Kyrgyzstan - now working with 350 families in rural areas.

Even in the south, there had been hope of the kind of Silk Road tourism that has proved a success in neighbouring Uzbekistan. The towns of Osh and Uzgen have been settled for centuries - Osh is "older than Rome," the Kyrgyz say. "We don't get tourists now, but we will in the future," Patiydin Mavlyanov, the mayor of Uzgen, tells bne. "We have many plans. I visited Samarkand recently, and we want to follow their example." However, the recent ethnic violence in the main southern cities, and the fact the region remains extremely tense, is likely to put this off for many years to come.

The development of Kyrgyzstan as a major tourist destination was always fraught with difficulties, but significant progress has been made before the revolution. Now, the main thing is for stability to be restored, but it will take a long time just to recover the ground lost in 2010.

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