CHOLPON-ATA, Kyrgyzstan; May 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Lake Issyk-Kul, tucked away in Kyrgyzstan's northeast corner and measuring 160 kilometers east-to-west and 60 kilometers north-to-south, is the second-largest alpine lake in the world.
But although nature has bestowed remarkable beauty on this area, it has also presented formidable obstacles. The region lies deep in the heart of the Asian continent -- far from the affluent capitals of Europe, East Asia, and even Russia. Access can be difficult, with poorly maintained roads snaking up toward the 7,000-meter mountain peaks.
But local official Nurlan Nasirdinov and other development-minded Kyrgyz want to see Issyk-Kul become the centerpiece of the country's tourism industry.
"[Lake] Issyk-Kul is a unique place," Nasirdinov says. "It has curative properties. A person can relax here, rest, and recover their health. Aside from that, we have mountain tourism [and] extreme-sport tourism. I think the future of Issyk-Kul is bright."
Only a few towns along the northern shore host resorts. The biggest is Cholpon-Ata, where Kyrgyz officials have sought to attract international conferences and investment. Four out of five tourists are from nearby Kazakhstan -- most of the rest are Russians. Going Fishing
Former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev had pinned high hopes on Issyk-Kul, hosting annual international investment summits here each year until he was ousted by a popular revolt in 2005.
Billboard advertising the Kazakhstan sanatorium at Issyk-Kul (RFE/RL)
It is unsurprising that locals are looking across the border to Kazakhstan, where vast oil resources are driving an economy that is growing by 8-9 percent per year. Its increasingly wealthy business leaders are looking for places to invest -- and relax. Kazakhs own a huge cement plant outside the Kyrgyz capital, and hold controlling or other major stakes in four Kyrgyz banks.
Laws barring foreign ownership prevent the ownership of land, but local official Nasirdinov says eager investors -- with the right connections -- can skirt such legislation.
"If a person is from some government -- say Kazakhstan -- and if he really wants to invest, then that is possible; it works," Nasirdinov says. "But we insist that the jobs there go to residents of Kyrgyzstan. And, of course, that helps [Issyk-Kul's] infrastructure."
The effects of small-scale Kazakh investment in Issyk-Kul are already evident. Once-modest cabins -- with no running water and communal bathrooms -- have been joined by hotels named after Kazakhstan's former capital. A huge billboard advertises a health spa that claims ties to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Nazarbaev has a vacation home nearby, purportedly a gift from former President Akaev. Access By Air
Access to Issyk-Kul -- which is a four-hour drive from Bishkek -- might soon improve as well. Nasirdinov says work has begun to improve the province's modest Tamchy Airport on the north shore, with the help of Russian backers.
Not all roads to Issyk-Kul are as well developed as this stretch (RFE/RL)
"They're already building [to improve the airport]," Nasirdinov says. "There is money; there is investment. Russia provided money, and soon [the airport] will be done."
Some well-heeled Russians are already familiar with Issyk-Kul, where they might have been sent as a reward during the Soviet era.
Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is due to pay a visit to Kyrgyzstan in June, when he is expected to discuss Russian investment in Kyrgyzstan -- and Issyk-Kul in particular.