The claimed Islamic State (IS) terrorist attack in Tajikistan that on July 29 left four foreign cyclists dead is a chilling blow to the remote Central Asian’s nation’s minor tourism industry, which was this year counting on a pick-up in business thanks to a Year of Tourism declared by Tajik officials. It may also have wider ramifications for efforts being made to secure more visitors across the region.
What was first thought to be a “hit-and-run” appears to have been a deliberate and brutal act on a scenic highway that claimed the lives of two Americans on a round-the-world bike trip, a Dutch psychologist and a Swiss man, and left three people injured. Video footage shows the cyclists being ploughed into on a road in the picturesque Pamir Mountains and attacked with knives and guns. IS claimed responsibility for the attack on July 30, according to SITE intelligence group.
On July 30, Tajik media reports said that three suspects sought in connection with the deaths in Danghara district, some 150 kilometres south of the capital Dushanbe, were traced to a nearby village, where two were killed after resisting arrest. Another four people were apparently detained.
The footage, released by the Tajik Service of RFE/RL, did not identify the person who managed to film the attack.
IS extremists issued a video on July 31 showing five men pledging allegiance to the group under the organisation's black flag. They criticised Tajikistan as having "been occupied by infidels".
The Tajik government rejected the IS claim. It instead blamed followers of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a political party that previously held government posts but was banned by the authoritarian regime in Central Asia’s poorest nation in 2015. The party has refuted any involvement and analysts see the government accusation as unproven and dubious as things stand.
“Roof of the World”
Dubbed the “Roof of the World” by Victorian explorers, the Pamirs are a range of mountains and high-altitude plateaus offering stunning views. The range forms roughly half of modern-day Tajikistan.
Apart from the terrible blow struck to the Tajik year of tourism, the perception of posed danger to westerners and other foreigners has the potential to impact on neighbouring Central Asian countries. Though Central Asia has not been a hotbed of recruitment for the IS, up to several hundred people from each country in the region have reportedly joined the extremist group in recent years. The main concern for governments has so far been the possibility of IS recruits returning home from the Middle East and bringing trouble with them. The attack appears to be the first case of authorities’ fears being realised.
Among countries in Central Asia trying to build up their tourism revenues is Uzbekistan. It is planning to issue new multi-visas, dubbed “Silkroad Visas”, allowing foreigners to visit both Uzbekistan and neighbouring countries. The project has been jointly developed with Kazakhstan. Tajikistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan are expected to be included in the initiative.
As part of its economic diversification efforts, Kazakhstan has devised plans to push up its tourism industry's share in GDP from 1% in 2016 to 8% by 2025. The government also hopes to raise employment in the tourism sector to 660,000 by 2025 up from 390,000 people in 2017.
In February, the Fund for the Reconstruction and Development of Uzbekistan (FRDU) pledged a credit line for $200mn to support the “co-financing of investment projects for the construction of hotels and facilities, and adjacent road, engineering and communications infrastructure”.
Some specific plans include the development of a “free tourist zone” in Tashkent Region in Uzbekistan and of the “Altai cluster” in Kazakhstan. Both countries are attempting to attract foreign investments via tourism.