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Kazakhstan: Tourism Company Seeks Foothold In Kazak Mountains

Almaty, Kazakhstan, 30 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has three famous commodities: Caspian Sea caviar, oil, and mountains. The VAliyev brothers have set out to make their fortune from the mountains.

Kazakhstan, the largest and most prosperous of the Central Asian republics, remains a poor country, with an estimated domestic product equivalent to less than $3,000 per person. Official figures don't even list tourism among its industries. Dauren Valiev, deputy director of Kan Tengri Mountain Service, estimates that vacation tourism generated not much more than $400,000 in revenues nationwide last year. His firm took in more than half of that, he says.

Kan Tengri takes its name from one of the two mountain peaks in the eastern Kazakhstan Tien Shan range that tower 7,000 meters. The company's revenues may be modest so far but its vision -- and its plans -- are immense.

Kazakhstan's provincial government founded Kan Tengri International Mountaineering Camp as a state-owned monopoly enterprise when the country still was a Soviet province. The company's founding director was Kazbek Valiev, a legendary mountaineer who himself has made 22 ascents to 7,000-meter and higher peaks. That includes Mount Everest by the west wall in 1982.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1989, Kazbek -- and Dauren Valiev, his younger brother -- took their enterprise private by the expedient of founding Kan Tengri Mountain Service and buying or leasing all of the predecessor company's property and equipment.

As business analysts define the term internationally, "tourism" covers business travel as well as vacation travel. Other travel-oriented firms in Central Asia cater to business and official travel, booking air travel, arranging hotel accommodations and the like. Kan Tangri does all that, to, but is seeking its place in the vacation-travel niche, with a subspecialty in adventure tourism.

Specifically, Kan Tengri arranges outdoor activities ranging from two days of easy hiking with a guide in the mountains surrounding Great Almaty Lake, 35 km southwest of the capital, to mountaineering expedititions assaulting the world-class peaks of Pobodi (7,439 meters) and Kan Tengri (7,010 meters). The company's home-designed brochure touts these peaks as "the two most northerly of all seven-thousanders of the earth." Mt. McKinley in Alaska is farther north but reaches only about 6,000 meters.

The company also offers six-day treks (without technical mountaineering) out of its comfortable permanent base camp in a forest of firs on the shore of Issyk-Kul Lake surrounded by the Alatau mountain range. It arranges helicopter skiing, ski mountaineering, horseback mountain treks and white water rafting. In the last seven years it also has organized three technical mountaineering expeditions in the Himilayas, including a climb of Mt. Everest in 1992.

This gamut of activities makes for some strange contrasts. This month, for instance, a Kan Tengri guide named Oleg was guiding a RFE/RL correspondent on a gentle two-day stroll through the woods around Great Almaty Lake while still nursing frost-bitten fingers acquired on Mt. Everest a month earlier.

The service has served clients so far from Japan, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, Austria, Italy, France, South Korea, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Canada. Its marketing so far has been desultory -- confined primarily to a slick, four-color brochure in English, designed and written by the VAliyev brothers themselves; occasional attendance at international tourism fairs in the West; word-of-mouth; and cooperation agreements with other travel agencies and carriers such as Austrian Air Lines.

Kazakhstan sprawls, five times the size of France, from the immense Caspian Sea in the west to the borders of China's Xinjiang Province in the east. It is potentially wealthy in oil, with deposits estimated to rival Iran's, iron, manganese and gold; in Caspian Sea caviar; and, of course, in mountains and natural beauty. But the petroleum resources are in early development, the caviar supply is withering from onslaughts of pollution and poaching. And the country can't seem to conquer an ambivalence over developing tourism.

James T. Fletcher, a tourism consultant for the Economic Studies Group of the London-based firm High-Point Rendel, is in Kazakhstan this month on a U.N.-funded contract to study tourism in Kazakhstan. He finds the tourism potential great but the prospects daunting. The country has no master plan for tourism development and its Department of Tourism has a staff of eight. The department's budget is so meager that when it staffed a travel fair booth for the first time ever in Berlin in March, it exhausted its supply of promotional materials and now lacks funds to replenish them.

Fletcher says the country has declared itself eager to develop tourism. But, as any Western marketer knows, an essential tenet of marketing is "make it easy to buy." Kazakhstan requires Western travelers to acquire visas before entering, but it lacks embassies or consulates in many Western countries. Long lines form at the airport in Almaty as new arrivals seek visas. Official fees for visas range from $35 to $165 on a sliding scale that cannot easily be explained to outsiders. And travelers staying more than three days are required personally to go to a police station to register with the police and have their passports stamped.

The consultant said he merely is gathering information now and has not formulated his recommendations for Kazakhstani tourism. What about adventure tourism, he was asked recently. Doesn't that hold great promise?

Fletcher put his answer this way: "I don't know. You can't define the term. Some people consider it adventure tourism when they join an expediton to assault Kan Tengri peak. The way it stands now, other people think just coming to Kazakhstan is adventure tourism."