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Kyrgyzstan: Tourism Becomes An Economic Priority

  • Ben Partridge



London, 15 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz Republic Prime Minister Kubanychbek JumAliyev says his government is to start building railways this year connecting the Asian railway network with Europe, part of a dream to create a new "Silk Road."

JumAliyev spoke in London yesterday to a conference aimed at promoting foreign investment in the remote Central Asian nation of 4.7 million people sandwiched between China and Kazakhstan.

His message was simple: the Kyrgyz Republic sees a thriving tourism sector as its "first priority industry". Hence its ambitious plans to open up railways, airports and telecommunications. The aim is to lure high-spending Germans and Japanese to enjoy its mighty chains of mountains, sparkling lakes and glaciers, and to see authentic nomad families still living in felt yurts on the steppes.

One major project is to develop the Manas airport into an air transit center for the Central Asian region as a whole at the crossroads of tourist routes from Europe to Asia.

President Askar Akaev said in a message to the conference that his country is no longer a backward "backyard" of the former Soviet Union, or "a closed country, forbidden to most people".

For most of this century, Kyrgyzstan -- like the other four Central Asian nations -- has been cut off from its natural neighbors by one of the longest and most closed borders in the world.

But now Akaev says: "We want as many people in the world as possible to know about us." His written message said: "We are a multi-ethnic, generous and industrious nation, which a British newspaper once described as "the nice guys of Central Asia."

A brochure for investors calls the country "a secret Central Asian Shangri-La, long enjoyed by those living in the former Soviet Union, but only recently rediscovered by the rest of the world."

Kyrgyzstan is stressing its romantic history as a site of the Great Silk Road, the ancient caravan trade routes linking the civilizations of Rome and China. It is also advertising its claims as the land of Alexander the Great and the hordes of Genghis Khan.

But it is also promising more modern attractions: white water rafting, pony trekking, mountain biking, even helicopter skiing. In addition, there are its thermal waters and medicinal mudbaths, and 5,000 historical and cultural monuments of past epochs.

Akaev acknowledges there are few hotels, restaurants, campsites or even roads, but he extols the virtues of a majestic country (94 percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous) of "untouched beauty, mostly free of ski lifts and funiculars".

Jumaliev, who heads a 60-strong delegation of ministers, officials and businessmen to the two-day "Doing Business in Kyrgyzstan" conference, called on western firms to help develop tourism.

He showed a film of stunning scenery which includes Lake Issyk-Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world, and the white and pink marble pyramid of Khan Tengry (6,995 meters).

The number of tourists visiting Kyrgyzstan has been growing on average by 13 per cent a year. Already, there are more than 200 travel firms registered in the republic, including 170 tourist agencies. Most tourists (69 percent) are from the CIS countries or China (14 percent) but there is big potential to boost high-spending tourists from Europe (9 percent) and America (3 percent).

JumAliyev had another message: that despite dire poverty, and the economic shocks that followed its exit from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan is one of the fastest economic reformers in the Commonwealth of Independent States. It has chalked up a series of "firsts" -- the first country of the former Soviet Union to break from the ruble zone; the first Central Asian country to win IMF approval for its reforms; the first to tame hyper inflation; and the first in the queue to join the World Trade Organization.

Jumaliev's message was that the worst pains of the transition process is over, and conditions have now been created for stable growth, international trade and inward foreign investment

He listed some of Kyrgyzstan's attractions: exciting mineral wealth including gold, uranium, and tin; the third largest producer of mercury after Spain and China; great potential for developing its silicon industry; and extensive hydropower resources (the "Land of Sky High Mountains" has hundreds of lakes and rivers). Almost two-thirds of enterprises are now in the non-government sector.

JumAliyev said his country is investor-friendly with a policy aimed at the free movement of foreign capital, and minimizing the risks to investors. This approach has lured Coca Cola which has founded a joint venture to produce soft drinks, and the German cigarette firm, Reemtsma, which plans to invest $60m in the tobacco industry.

But the main message of the Kyrgyz delegation in London is: Come and visit us.

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