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Can Kazakhstan Become A Top Tourist Destination?

The Zhailyau golf resort outside Almaty, Kazakhstan's business capital and main city, sports spectacular views.
The Zhailyau golf resort outside Almaty, Kazakhstan's business capital and main city, sports spectacular views.

Borat generated a lot of laughs at Kazakhs' expense, but he also helped put their country on the map for international travelers.

The fictional Kazakh character, who starred in the 2006 film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," was once credited with attracting tourists to the Central Asian country.

Now the country is trying to reach the next level and become a top destination for domestic and foreign holidaymakers.

Astana intends to invest some $10 billion -- including up to $6 billion from private investors -- to develop its tourism sector by 2020.

The country boasts a wealth of attractions -- including picturesque lakes and mountains, hot-mineral springs, and archeological wonders. The more adventurous can test their limits on alpine slopes and harsh deserts, live as a nomad on the steppes, or visit former labor camps and nuclear test sites.

Those who prefer the urban life can find solace in the capital, Astana, and the country's business capital, Almaty.

Build It, But Will They Come?

As new hotels are being built and ski resorts are being renovated, the country hopes to double the number of tourists to 8 million a year by 2020.

Borat might be tempted to declare the effort a "Great success!" but Kazakhstan still has a long way to go before it joins the ranks of the world's premier tourist destinations.

The country relies heavily on domestic tourists and visitors from former Soviet countries, primarily Russia and Central Asian states.

While Kazakhstan boasts many natual wonders, its lack of infrastructure means few will visit them.
While Kazakhstan boasts many natual wonders, its lack of infrastructure means few will visit them.

Kazakhstan's tourism officials have expressed their desire to attract more international travelers -- specifically those with big wallets But money alone is not going to lure tourists from targeted countries.

A complicated visa and registration process is one obstacle already being addressed.

This month, Kazakhstan introduced temporary visa-free entry for citizens of 10 countries, including the United States, Britain, Japan, the U.A.E., Germany, and Malaysia. The measure allows travelers from the selected states to enter and exit Kazakhstan multiple times, and stay for periods of up to 15 days, until July 15, 2015.

According to Kazakh media, Astana next plans to drop visa requirements for 48 countries, mostly developed nations, by the end of the year.

Costly Tickets To Paradise

Despite the cash infusion, Kazakhstan is not yet built for tourism. There is a shortage of modern facilities and air routes within the country, and a surplus of bad roads and bad service.

"Almost no one in service jobs speaks English, and there are no signs written in foreign languages in tourist-oriented places," a Japanese tourist recently told the business publication

Inefficient service at hotels and restaurants and poor hygienic standards have also been identified as areas for improvement.

"In cafes and restaurants they frequently forget to return the change," the Japanese tourist added.

Galiya Izbastova, the head of I-Travel Agency in Kazakhstan, admits that "many hotels are nowhere near meeting any international standard." She singles out the famous Charyn National Park as an example, saying that the bathroom facilities at nearby hotels are an embarrassment.

She is not optimistic that Kazakhstan will see tourists rushing to its ski slopes or lakeside retreats any time soon if the authorities don't address the "most basic issues" in the tourism business.

No Place Like Home

While the benefits of attracting moneyed tourists are obvious, Kazakhstan also risks pricing domestic tourists out of the market.

The number of domestic visitors to Kazakh tourist destinations has fallen in recent years, in part because high prices for food, airfares, and accommodation at home make foreign destinations more appealing.

Kazakhs currently spend about $400 million annually on vacations abroad, while the number of domestic visitors to spa and ski resorts has dipped.

Asel Sandybatova, an Almaty resident, says high hotel prices in Kazakhstan led her to change her plans to vacation at the Borovoye mountain resort in northern Kazakhstan, and spend her summer holiday in Turkey instead.

"I was shocked to see that a 10-day package to Borovoye costs more than $1,900, and it is only for bed and breakfast," she tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

One answer, suggests Marina Sudakova, who runs a private travel agency, if for the country to cater more to the "economy-class." That means more three-star hotels, affordable attractions, and family-friendly facilities.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service offers informed and accurate reporting in the Kazakh and Russian languages about issues that matter in Kazakhstan, while providing a dynamic platform for audience engagement and the free exchange of news and ideas.