With its natural beauty and rich historic and cultural legacy, Kyrgyzstan could cite tourism as one of its most promising areas for industry growth. But the Kyrgyz leadership's "hands-off" approach and the country's growing political instability have combined with a chronic lack of infrastructure to stunt the development of the country's emerging tourism sector.
Prague, 8 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For Kyrgyzstan, 2002 could have marked a watershed in the country's burgeoning tourism industry. Designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Mountains -- at the proposal of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev himself -- 2002 was meant to be the year when the world's attention -- and tourists -- would be drawn to the globe's most famous mountainous areas.
Kyrgyzstan should have been no exception. With its pristine Tien-Shan Mountains -- with peaks that soar to more than 7,000 meters above sea level -- and the legendary Issyk-Kul Lake, the second-largest alpine lake in the world, the country can offer nature lovers and adventure seekers a rich vacation experience.
But just as mountain lovers should be taking advantage of special tour packages to Kyrgyzstan, tourism numbers are dropping. Alexander Rusin runs a Bishkek-based travel agency that organizes private hiking and vehicle tours around Kyrgyzstan. He tells RFE/RL his reservations this year are down 50 percent. "Last year we had quite a lot of groups from Europe -- from Germany, from Italy, France -- but this year only from the U.S., Sweden, and maybe from France. [Our activity] depends on the political situation in the whole world, and of course on the local political situation in the south of the republic."
What Rusin is referring to is this year's massive protests that have rocked the Central Asian country and forced the resignation of the government. The unrest -- combined with the recent murder of a Chinese diplomat and mounting concerns about terrorist incursions -- has posed a challenge for travel agency operators trying to convince tourists of the serene, tranquil charms of the Kyrgyz countryside.
The political unrest in Kyrgyzstan peaked in March, when six demonstrators were shot dead by police during a protest in the southern Aksy Raion. News of the killings came as Kyrgyz travel operators were working to promote their country as an ideal tourist destination at the Berlin international tourism fair in March. Two months later, a second tourism fair in Moscow was held amid demonstrations over the Aksy shooting. The German Foreign Ministry website now warns potential visitors that Kyrgyzstan is facing "increasing international criticism" for its human rights record. It also mentions a government "crackdown" on Islamic groups operating in the country.
Such incidents have had an instant impact on the country's tourism figures. The numbers, though low, had begun to increase -- half a million tourists in 2001 compared to 400,000 tourists the year before, with most coming from the CIS countries, primarily Kazakhstan and Russia. This year, however, the numbers have begun to drop.
A recent article on the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting website cited newly appointed Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev as saying the violence this year has prompted some 1,000 Russian tourists to cancel vacations in Issyk-Kul Oblast and nearly 300 Western Europeans to abandon plans for hiking tours to Lenin Peak, one of the country's highest.
The tourism industry, eager to lure not only tourists but Western investors to Kyrgyzstan, has urged the Kyrgyz government to help solve the crisis before the country's tourist trade is lost entirely to other mountainous nations like Turkey, China, Tibet, Nepal, and the countries of South America.
Sergei Katanaev manages a Kyrgyz-British travel joint venture that works in tandem with foreign tour operators. He says the growing wave of bad press abroad presents an inaccurate picture of the political situation in Kyrgyzstan, which he says does not represent a danger for tourists. Moreover, he says the general insecurity that has set in internationally in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks has cut into Kyrgyzstan's tourism figures even more. "Of course, our number of tourists has decreased. It is about 40 percent less altogether from the U.S. and from Europe. People are afraid to [take] flights, especially from [the] U.S., because of the terrorists."
Russian and Western tourists are not the only target markets for Kyrgyz tour operators. Nearly 20,000 Chinese visitors are expected to visit Kyrgyzstan's mountainous Naryn province this year. But the recent shooting death of a Chinese consul in Bishkek may likewise eat into those numbers.
This year's troubles are not the first blow to Kyrgyzstan's emerging tourism sector. In 1998, a sodium cyanide spill in the Barskoon River spread panic through communities in the Issyk-Kul Oblast. The following year, the world's attention once again focused on Kyrgyzstan when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) held captive four Japanese geologists and a Kyrgyz general in the southern hills of the country. In 2000, the IMU once again kidnapped four Americans hiking in the southwest Osh Oblast.
Tourism experts say a fundamental lack of infrastructure contributes to dwindling tourist numbers as well, with excessive bureaucratic restrictions, poor advertising, and a dearth of direct flights to Bishkek all putting a stranglehold on Kyrgyz tourism.
Ten years of economic crisis have left the tourism and transportation sectors badly in need of investment. Existing hotels are too few and too expensive, and do not provide sufficient Western-standard facilities for international visitors. A night at an Issyk-Kul hotel can costs some $100 -- an extravagance, compared to many better-equipped resorts in Turkey, for example.
Julien Freidel organizes Central Asian and Himalayan tours for the French-based Tamera travel agency. He tells RFE/RL that political stability and safety are key conditions in order for a country to attract tourists. But in Kyrgyzstan, he adds, the impact of the current political crisis on his company's business is still small, due to the "embryonic" stage of Kyrgyz tourism. For now, Freidel says the main challenge is introducing tourists to the very idea of a Kyrgyz vacation.
Which is not to say that Kyrgyzstan is a tourism diamond in the rough. Freidel says the red tape involved in entering the country, and the lack of a Kyrgyz foreign mission in France, make getting a Kyrgyz visa a "pain in the neck" that dissuades a lot of potential visitors from even considering a trip.
"[The red tape involved] has many consequences. For example, it means that everything has to be done, let's say, one month before the departure. We cannot accept people who call three weeks before saying they would like to go [to Kyrgyzstan] because we know there is a one-month delay to obtain a visa. So this is an enormous and absurd curb."
Furthermore, Freidel complains, prices for invitations, visas, and other services are "delirious" in Kyrgyzstan -- so much so that many potential visitors quickly turn their sights to the Himalayas or Andes instead. He says Kyrgyz officials must work to improve the system if they hope to convince tourists to come to their country: "[Kyrgyz authorities] have to understand that the world is pretty big, that people are well informed, that they have no particular reason to go to Kyrgyzstan instead of -- I don't know -- Nepal, Bolivia, or Peru, for example. So they have to make efforts to make this country attractive, concerning itineraries or prices."
Kyrgyz leaders have acknowledged such complaints, and have pledged to take steps to ease travel to the country. Speaking at the European Bank for Regional Development annual meeting in Bucharest last May, Djoomart Otorbaev -- a presidential representative focusing on foreign investment -- said the country was willing to initiate new measures to ease visa restrictions: "We will provide a liberal visa regime for business people and tourists from specific countries, so it's not required to get an invitation to enter the country, and at the main entrances to the country for tourists and business people visas can be obtained [directly]. As for the so-called OVIR [visa] registration, it was decided already that this type of registration will be stopped."
Since March, citizens of 28 countries are no longer required to register their visas with the state. Previously, visitors had to register within three days of their arrival or face a penalty.
But despite pledges to cut through red tape, bureaucratic requirements remain complicated for potential travelers. The Kyrgyz government last year announced it was lifting visa restrictions for citizens of the U.S., the EU, and Japan. But so far that pledge has yet to come into practice.
Furthermore, countries without a Kyrgyz mission must obtain their visas through Russian or Kazakh embassies -- a procedure that requires a formal invitation, and therefore more money and more time. And despite being theoretically possible to now receive a visa upon arrival at Manas airport outside Bishkek, the complicated procedure does not make it a practical solution.