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Kyrgyzstan: Tourism Waits For Its Moment To Shine

By Tim Jasek --> Sonya Umetalieva and her kids in their yurt Another tourist season in Kyrgyzstan has ended in disappointment. No statistics have yet been announced, but there is general agreement that political instability has once again resulted in less tourism. What needs to be done to boost tourism in this Central Asian nation which, though impoverished, is packed with natural wonders?

Bishkek, 4 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Sonya Umetalieva was not especially happy about the March revolution that brought down the government of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

She knew it would mean fewer visitors to the family yurt she has set up for the last three summers in the mountains north of Issyk-Kul, one of the world's largest Alpine lakes.

Umetalieva hopes Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was elected president in a July poll, will fulfill his promises of peace and prosperity. But even so, the 38-year-old mother of two said the government seems intent upon creating ever-more challenges to the country's budding tourist industry.
"The most important thing is to give to our tour operators more opportunities, because the Kyrgyz tourist market is currently dominated by Russian and Kazakh tour operators."

With the powerful Chon-Ak-Suu (Big White Water) River roaring in the background, Umetialieva sipped a cup of green tea in the yurt her grandfather built and gave a litany of entrepreneurial fees: "We have to pay the tax office, the ecological office. If someone from the epidemiological station comes, we have to pay them also."

Vladimir Vereshchagin agreed. Speaking in his mansion in a Bishkek suburb, Vereshchagin said he has become wealthy through a variety of tourism-related enterprises -- in spite of government hindrances.

He says the government could and should do more to help the Kyrgyz people take advantage of their country's natural attractions.

"First of all, the most important thing is to give to our tour operators more opportunities, because the Kyrgyz tourist market is currently dominated by Russian and Kazakh tour operators," he said. "Our tour operators are bound heavily by taxes and bureaucratic obstacles."

But foreign tourist businesses face challenges as well. Ian Claytor, a Briton who manages Bishkek's Silk Road Hotel, said it took 18 months alone to get permission to build the high-end hotel, and then only after investors significantly altered the design.

He said bureaucracy, high taxes, bad roads, and a cumbersome visa process are robbing Kyrgyzstan of its rightful place as a major international tourist destination.

"It's got everything here," he said. "You've got mountains, you've got plains, you've got nomadic lifestyle, you've got reasonable accommodation, you've got sea, sun, sand, and beach up on the lake -- Lake Issyk-Kul. It might not be Club Med, but here you've got such a land of contrasts."

Like everyone in the Kyrgyz tourist industry, Claytor said he has had enough of the country's political instability.

And it is not just the March revolution. Claytor talks woefully of the 1999 raids and kidnappings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the southern Batken region. There was also the 2001 shooting by police of six protesters in Aksy.

Further afield, the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 11 September 2001 terror attacks in the United States have had a dampening effect on tourism as well.

But despite all this, Claytor sees nothing preventing Kyrgyzstan from becoming what he called "the Switzerland of Central Asia."

Enter the Swiss nongovernmental organization Helvetas, which is intent on helping Kyrgyzstan's tourism industry gain more than the reported 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

One of Helvetas' several Kyrgyz tourism plans is a tourism destination marketing program. Victoria Timonova says the program is working with small tourism vendors to help offer their customers more value for their money.

"The main things that they are doing is that they are setting up different guest houses, and whenever tourists or visitors are traveling to those destinations within the country, the visitors have been introduced to the local life of people," Timonova said. "Also, they are able to participate in making local rugs or being exposed to local cuisine, etc."

Gulnara Kydyrmysheva for the past three years has run a small guest house in Karakol, on the east side of Lake Issyk-Kul. She also has a souvenir shop where her employees develop her designs for rugs, pillows, and scarves.

Kydyrmysheva said the last years have not been easy, but Helvetas has helped her survive by supporting her efforts to go to international tourism fairs: "Helvetas helped me to go to Germany, because 1 square meter [of floor space at the fair] cost $150 for five days. Now it's 250 euros. So because of this, it's quite difficult for me to go there [without their help]."

Back at the Silk Road Hotel, Claytor has warm praise for Helvetas's efforts. But he is skeptical of the project's stated goal of self-sufficiency: "The thing that concerns me about [the Helvetas program] is that it's a bit short. At the end of the three years, if the Swiss project comes to a close, the project is supposed to be self-financing, and I find that hard to see at the moment. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I'm saying I see lots of problems."

Emil Umetaliev, president of Kyrgyz Concept, one of the country's largest tourist companies, is more optimistic.

He admits there was less business this year. But Umetaliev sees a positive element to the latest political instability, saying it has made Kyrgyzstan what he calls a "new brand."

"Originally, when we visited tourism fairs, everybody asked, 'Where is your Kyrgyzstan?'" he said. "One month ago I visited Hong Kong for an international tourism fair, and they said, 'Ah, Kyrgyzstan is somewhere where there was a revolution!' It's not bad. It's not bad. It's the first time Kyrgyzstan was promoted so often in the world, the first time in our history, and in general, I think it's not bad information."

One can only hope Umetaliev is correct. But it is hard to put a positive spin on the continued political instability, which on 21 September saw the assassination of parliamentary deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev outside his house. He was the second parliament lawmaker to be killed since June.

In the meantime, some enterprising Kyrgyz frustrated by the tourist trade will find other ways to make money -- even illegally. Authorities say it is no coincidence that there have been reports of a significant increase in this year's marijuana crop around tourist-dependent Lake Issyk-Kul.

(RFE/RL's Larisa Balanovskaya helped with this report.)

For more news about events in Kyrgyzstan, see RFE/RL's webpage News and Features on Kyrgyzstan