Central Asia: Problems and Perspectives of International Tourism

08.09.2004 10:23

 

In: Travel Trade, Regional Development and Education, 9th International Conference, Tábor, 19-20 May 2004, s. 54-59. ISBN 80-7040-690-9.

 

Slavomír Horák, Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University Prague

 

Region of Central Asia usually doesn’t evoke any big expectations or knowledge in the minds of ”mass tourists”. If you even find someone who is able to localise the region and the countries included, he would probably start by describing its local natural conditions: deserts (and related terms, f. e. camels, desert crossings, caravans, nomads), mountains or lakes (Aral lake), maybe some relevant historical monuments.

However, among the most usual reactions to Central Asia region you can find expressions like ”black hole”, ”something very strange”. More informed (or ”informed”) people could mention the words ”corrupt states”, ”totalitarian regimes” ”opium or heroin routes” or ”war in Afghanistan”. All these Central Asian images are rather unfavourable for local authorities that are keen to raise their money from tourism industry.

 

Analysis of contemporary tourism possibilities in Central Asia is given in this paper. Aspects researched in the region are divided into groups of localisation factors (nature, cultural and historical monuments, society), material technical basis (with special focus on corruption) and psychological expectations and stereotypes.

Table 1 covers all the factors analysed and gives their basic evaluation. Points assigned to each factor are based on author’s research in 1999-2003 (including several months of staying or travelling within the region). Of course, the evaluation is influenced by author’s experience. The list of factors and their ”rating” could not cover all the field analysed. Wherefore, the table serves mainly as a guide through this paper and doesn’t represent any universal methodology used for tourist destinations. All the evaluation reflects a context of the region. A comparison to Turkey and Iran (as the nearest comparable tourist destinations) is offered at the end of each line, notwithstanding that especially Turkey could distort some results (e. g. its wide access to sea).

 

Nature

Travel agencies specialised on Central Asia usually offer their customers a stay in fascinating land with plenty of tourist attractions - mountains, historical monuments, national traditions, kitchen etc. Tourist really can find such things there, but leaflets do not show other side of the shield

Looking to the map, you can find a relief convenient for mountain tourism especially – f. e. wonderful mountain areas in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, still quite unpopulated and untouched by tourists. The ”trippers” areas are situated only in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan (trekking facilities around the town Karakol and mountaineering camps near Pik Pobedy and Khan-Tengri) and its southwest (mountaineering around Pik Lenina and Pamiro-Alay ranges). In Tajikistan, most of trekkers and alpinists visit several popular mountains in Central Pamir (Pik Kommunizma/Ismoil Somoni) and western part of the country (Fan mountains). Knowledge of the area (and also its attractiveness) is comparable to that of Kachkar Mountains in Eastern Turkey or Demavand in Iran.

Tourists are usually afraid of local climate - summer heats limit their number during main holiday seasons (June-September). Considering water resources (rivers, lakes), Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the leaders within the region again. While Tajikistan can offer its mountain lakes, Kyrgyzstan’s main tourist magnet (except its mountains) is Issyk-Kul Lake, which is now one of the leading tourists centres in the region. Both Tajik and Kyrgyz lakes are hardly comparable to the seacoast in Turkey, but they could serve as a good base for tourism development.

Considering natural conditions, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have the best presuppositions for outdoor tourism in Central Asia. Both countries tourist image is associated with mountains (and the countries present themselves in this manner too).

Culture and History

Cultural and historical heritage of Central Asia is represented mainly by historical cities in Uzbekistan (esp. Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva). These jewels of Islamic architecture are the most popular destinations in the region and became its symbol (together with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan mountains and lakes). Slight distance among these historical sites and their location in one country make them ideal for guided tours. Significance and beauty of Uzbekistan historical towns is comparable with the most popular sights in Turkey and Iran.

Outside Uzbekistan, there are other historical monuments too, but their significance is more or less local or regional. What is more, visiting them causes additional problems for tourists (visas, border crossings discussions). Among these, Konya-Urgench, Merv (Mary) and Nissa in Turkmenistan, Uzgen (Özgön) in southern Kyrgyzstan or Turkestan in Kazakhstan are worth visiting. Tourists also omit some other interesting places in Uzbekistan (such as khan palace in Kokand or archeological complex in Termez). On the contrary, the main entrance gates to appropriate countries (Bishkek, Dushanbe, Ashgabat, Almaty, Tashkent) attract more tourists, despite their lack of historical monuments. The exception is Ashgabat with its new ”totalitarian” architecture of president Turkmenbashy.

 

Society

Unfortunately, natural and cultural highlights of Central Asia are not accompanied by entertainment facilities or events (sport matches, festivals etc.). In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, it is possible to find some basic night entertainment (discos, night-clubs), Issyk-kul resort has also started with more recreational attractions. Nevertheless, this kind of amusement could not represent the main target for foreign tourists.

Significance of Central Asian folklore, traditions or kitchen is stressed in all promotion materials. However, like in many other places in the world, tourists can usually meet there just a kind of artificial revival of ”traditions”, designed for tourism. Handouts, leaflets and catalogues are full of photos of ”traditional national” dresses, which are not usually used in daily life, or dances, which local people could only watch in local TV shows. Stress on such artificial history than leads to misunderstanding of the region.

Furthermore, meeting local people is controlled and even restricted for tourist groups in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Wherefore, real and sincere hospitality of local people can be enjoyed only by individual tourists, however emphasised they could be in tourist brochures.

Some countries can offer more or less natural folklore souvenirs (such as typical Kyrgyz ak kalpak - white hat, tyubyeteyka – typical headgear in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, carpet in Turkmenistan etc.). Among quite non-artificial attractions belongs typical Central Asian markets (bazar, rynok) – e. g. Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent, bazaar in Osh or Tolkuchka bazaar near Ashgabat, which are often visited by tourist groups. Nevertheless, Central Asian bazaars or “folklore” performances have not reached the same popularity as in Turkey or Iran.

A short overview of factors mentioned above dealt with just underdeveloped areas or unexploited opportunities that need not prevent the region from mass tourism. Following points, however, represent the real handicaps retarding a proper development of tourism.

Material and technical basis

Comparing to other regions with similar characteristics (nature, historical monuments), Central Asian tourism system brings a lot of additional problems for tourists.

Long distance from main world tourist centres is one of most important factor that will always limit a number of tourists.

Even more serious barrier is visa and entrance process, which must be overcome by every potential tourist. In this respect, the most ”tourism-friendly” country is Kyrgyzstan, which has recently abolished its visa regime with many tourism exporting countries. Kazakhstan still requires visas, but slowly simplifies the process of obtaining them.(1) On the other hand, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and especially Turkmenistan try to limit their tourism industry to group tourism, which could be easier controlled by authorities. Visa process there usually requires an invitation from travel agency (personal invitation exists too, but usually brings enormous problems for inviting side). Travel agency invitation costs around 50 USD, but it is automatically connected with payment for other services (transfers, accommodation, tours) that brings extra expenses for tourists (40-100 USD).(2) The strictest rules were established in Turkmenistan, where no individual foreigner could move freely – tourists must be necessarily accompanied by local ”guides”, who keep eyes on them, prevent them from “anticonstitutional” activities and provide them with the only right view on the history and contemporary life of the country.

Getting there and away is less problematic. Several world and regional air companies connect world centres with Central Asia. Cost of tickets from Europe to Central Asia could more or less compete with destinations like Central America or Central Africa. A bit problematic country in this respect is Tajikistan, which is served by fewer foreign companies, Tajik air company has only one long-distance flight weekly and only to neighbouring regions. The best air connection to Central Asia is through CIS countries (esp. Moscow) or Middle East (esp. Istanbul or UAE).

However, system of inland transport could easily make tourists crazy. Groups should usually pay for overprized city and intercity transport. Tourist discrimination and double-priced policy still exist even within some airlines (Tajikistan Airlines, partially Uzbekistan Airways). Individual tourists should be prepared for troubles in getting air-tickets (esp. in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) because of black market involving sale operators themselves. As for railway and bus tickets, such a ”business” was eliminated in last years. Relatively normal conditions in this field are observed in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where principles of market economy work better.

The most problematic country for inland travelling in Central Asia is Tajikistan again. This country lacks proper infrastructure and public transport network. Bad roads often limit transport to passenger cars (Dushanbe-Khudjent in Northern Tajikistan) or even to 4WD vehicles (Dushanbe-Pamir). Together with air tickets black market mentioned above, Tajikistan stays open for adventure travellers only and could not reach the same number of foreign tourists as Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan.

As for accommodation, the countries and private companies has renovated many old Soviet top hotels or even built up new ones. In this respect, a special attention should be paid to a new ”hotel complex” Berzengi in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), where several four- and five-star hotels grew up at the end of 90´s (now they are almost empty). In general, top class hotels in Central Asia are able to keep the normal standards. Nevertheless, decreasing demand for this kind of accommodation and unfavourable business climate in some states often force world hotel companies to leave the region completely.(3)

Lack of wide-scaled accommodation is one of the most serious problems in Central Asia. While tourists in Middle East or South Asia can find accommodation of all types and price levels, finding budget or middle-priced in Central Asia is very difficult. Even if there are some lower-class hotels in particular towns, they could be closed for foreigners completely (4) or you have to count for a double-priced approach (often outside CIS citizens), which makes price unequal to quality of services. This accommodation ”gap” is partially filled by private home lodgings of B&B type (Bukhara, Khiva, Issyk-Kul). Though, this system is either illegal (Turkmenistan) or at least non-official (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan).

Double-priced system includes also entrance fees to majority of historical monuments (for tourists 5-10 times more than for locals in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). This approach is quite understandable from the social point of view, but it gives a negative image of the country and creates a big space for corruption of cashiers.(5) The entrance fees for foreigners in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are also higher, but the difference is ”only” 2-3 times more than local fee. Similar price policy exists in Iran, but the check system is clearer more thorough there (f. e., identification or student cards are requested), thus the corruption is almost impossible.

Level of telecommunication services differs from country to country. The most developed is Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – tourist can easily call abroad, use roaming mobile phones or Internet in tourist centres. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have a quite fair network of Internet Cafes in bigger towns, but phone or mobile phone connections are still underdeveloped. Specific situation is in Turkmenistan, where censorship of Internet (present in lesser extent in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) and outside phone calls continues.

Progress in foreign languages knowledge (except of Russian, which is still broadly understood in majority of areas) is visible mainly in main tourist centres. In Bukhara, Samarkand, Issyk-Kul, in lesser extent in Bishkek and some other cities, tourist can find people speaking English. Nevertheless, ability to provide information in foreign languages, as well as an existence of information offices, is still rather rare. Thus, individuals have to rely on tourist guides like Lonely Planet (with a lot of mistakes concerning Central Asia) or experience of other travellers described mainly on Internet.

Corruption

Like in many other Asian countries, bribing and corruption have penetrated to all spheres of public life. System of bribing has a pyramidal configuration – lower clerks get money from the rest of population and then pass part of the money to their higher official, etc. On the top, there is a chief-officer who could never be omitted too.

Tourism is a very profitable business, which means that tourists must pay the whole system of corruption (without sharing its benefits). The system is entered (often unawarnessly) by applying for visa – at the embassy (6) or in the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Foreign Affairs (7), which usually approves visa invitations (in all countries except Kyrgyzstan). Entrance and exit formalities are usually also connected with bribery, additional taxes or unofficial customs – but foreigners do not meet as exhausting practices as local people (or, better to say, as citizens from former USSR countries). Anyway, crossing any border in Central Asia (and generally in all CIS countries) still remains very unpredictable.(8) Local car drivers even prefer giving some small money to militia (GAI) to risking any kind of search that could result in paying more.(9)

Therefore, local or foreign travel agencies face a very delicate situation in Central Asia. The psychology of many officers is based on slogan that ”if foreigner has that much money to come here, he surely has a small amount more to give it to me.” Thus, the agencies have to spend lot of money on bribery. On the other side, they are pressed by customers to reduce price and also need to make their business profitable.

Phenomenon of bribing has become there so natural and obvious that many local people even do not find it bad. This vicious circle is one of the main obstacles for development and progress (not only of tourism). Normal tourists (and even some foreign travel agencies) usually cannot see a full corruption image of Central Asia. Nevertheless, overpricing of tourist services reflects the crooked situation perfectly.(10)

Psychological aspects

While previous problems were connected mainly with internal factors of the countries mentioned, following aspects are highly depended on outside presentation and general awareness of the region. Since normal tourist takes the region globally, question-forms would probably give other results than those indicated in the Table 1. Anyway, on the basis of several research trips I tried to distinguish the countries according to their real position.

Intention of visiting a particular region is based on the highlights and ”challenges” offered. Considering Central Asian beauties, the most common destination should be Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (nature) and Uzbekistan (historical monuments).

Unfortunately, all these countries are regarded as remote, isolated and far from other tourist centres. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are the most accessible (easier visa process and travel connections), Uzbekistan is somewhere in the middle, while other two countries are accessible very hardly.

Moreover, all Central Asian states represent almost complete ”black holes” for world mass media - news from there fills up headlines or short articles scarcely. The least information comes from Turkmenistan (as expressed in table 1).

Geopolitical view of the region is closely connected with the aspects mentioned above. Majority of rare reports are negatively oriented and deal with proximity of unstable Afghanistan, Tajik civil war news, American military bases in the region, flow of narcotics through the area, terrorist acts or undemocratic political regimes. The only exception is probably Kyrgyzstan, which is viewed as ”an island of democracy”. Of course, a potential tourist is highly influenced by this mass media image.

Conclusions

Despite official wishes and declarations, Central Asian countries remain a rather hostile to mass tourism, mainly due to the conditions provided (with small exception of Kyrgyzstan and, in lesser degree, Kazakhstan). However big are expected incomes of this industry sometimes, tourism will hardly play some significant role in local economies.

Nowadays, the leader in regional tourism market is Kyrgyzstan – mostly thanks to a good balance of natural beauties, material technical basis and psychological goodwill. Its final index in Table 1 almost reaches that of Iran (in spite of different motives for choosing these destinations). The great advantage of Uzbekistan is its historical and cultural heritage which can ”overshadow” a rather poor material and technical basis. Group tourism, on which Uzbek tourism is based on, brings quite good incomes, but overpriced system could degrade the country rating in the future. Kazakhstan’s material and technical basis is far better and more solid than that of its regional rival, but it cannot attract bigger number of tourists, because of lack of well-known tourist sights. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan take the last places of our rating. Despite of poor material and technical basis, Tajikistan will probably be able to attract more tourists in near future, due to its natural beauties. Unlike in Uzbekistan, Tajik tourism will not profit from group tourism, as it is not common in alpinism, mountaineering or trekking. However, a dream about ”Central Asian Nepal” preferred by Tajik officials, collides with greed of local authorities and travel agencies collecting money for everything(11) and insufficient infrastructure (f.e. use of helicopters to get to Pik Kommunizma base camp or two-days way on Pamir highway to Khorog).

Stronger segment of top-class or business tourism causes Turkmenistan’s place slightly before Tajikistan. However, bureaucratic barriers and drive for absolute control from authorities make any tourist flow impossible there. What is more, attractiveness of Turkmenistan historical monuments is incomparable with Uzbekistan ones, so potential for development of tourism industry is on a very low level.

In conclusion, Central Asia has all the suppositions to represent a rather marginal target of tourism, comparable to the majority of Central African or Central American countries. Insufficient material and technical basis, complicated transport, information gap (and rather negative information) and bureaucratic obstructions are the most important barriers for tourism development there. However exotic and interesting the region is, the existing insufficiency in many aspects of successful tourism industry prevails.

 

 

Endnotes

(1) In February 2004, obtaining an invitation for Kazakh visa was not difficult for citizens of about 25 countries.

(2) For details see e.g. http://www.stantours.com/ca_mn_vis.html, http://www.advantour.com/uzbekistan/information/visa.htm,

http://sayoh.tojikiston.com/services.html

(3) The most typical example is Uzbekistan, where Hilton and Le Meridian companies sold their hotels in 2000. See also Taksanov, A.: Kogda pridut turisty? O realnoy situacii turizma v Uzbekistane. [When do tourists come? About real situation of tourism in Uzbekistan] . http://oina.freenet.uz/oina4.htm, 4.5.2004.

(4) In Uzbekistan, author has been accommodated several times in such “just for locals” hotels, but only after bribing administrator and paying up to four times more than locals (f.e. 4 USD instead of 1 USD for locals). What is more, he was warned by administrator every day not to come before late evening because of regular police checks in rooms. Only tourists with some knowledge of Russian or local languages could use this type of accommodation.

(5) Usual entrance fee for most monuments in Uzbekistan is about 2-2,5 USD, but giving some 1 USD is often enough to satisfy cashier to get such ”without ticket discount”. And even in some the most important Samarkand monuments we were able to enter for local prices saying about our stay and work in Tashkent. With Russian almost without strange pronunciation we could even enter to some monuments without showing passports. In Turkmenistan it was possible to enter for local prices with Ashgabat registration (propiska).

(6) For example, author bribed consul of a particular Central Asian country, which normally requires a visa invitation letter. In spite of complicated and longstanding transactions, 20 USD was enough to get visa without any invitation.

(7) System here is often based on mutual agreement between a local travel agency, which divide profit from invitation letters, and a responsible officer at appropriate office. Apart from these direct ”taxes”, travel agencies often pay similar bribes as all local companies (registration, taxes and negotiations with authorities, etc.). These ”fees” are then projected to prices of services.

(8) At a particular Central Asian border, custom officer liked one book in author’s baggage and wanted to take it home. So he decided that he would either receive the book or obstruct a custom control.

(9) Going from Ferghana in southeast Uzbekistan to Shakhimardan (Uzbek enclave surrounded fully by Kyrgyz territory), the driver demanded much more money than would be the price of according distance way. He explained that he would have to pay bribes to the police in Kyrgyzstan. He was very surprised, when we negotiated with the police and finally reached the place without paying high ”fines” (1 USD in one police post). At a police check on the way back, a local driver (usually penalized by lower ”tariffs”, as he explained) stoically took three small banknotes (approx. 0,3 USD) and said ”It is only a traffic policeman, he just collects money”.

(10) See f. e. 22-day tour around Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for ”only” 4695 USD (excluded visa fees). http://www.motoji.net/Opening/home/2003_tour/tour_intro.html.

(11)If an alpinist or trekker wants to enter the area of Pamir, he is expected to pay following fees:

40 USD for registration in Tajikistan and permission for border area (whole Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region - paid to Department of Visas and Registrations of Ministry of Interior – OVIR - in Dushanbe);

50 USD for trekking permission (paid to travel agency, but without obtaining any permission paper);

1 USD/day for an ecology tax in the mountains (the same conditions as previous item);

40 USD for invitation letter (paid to travel agency – for corruption) and eventually 40 USD for another permission for fairy Sarez Lake (paid partially to OVIR and partially to travel agency).

An additional expense is a visa fee, which in 2003 in Tajik embassy in Vienna was 80/90 EUR for one- and two-month visa respectively.

Table 1

Evaluation of selected tourism aspects in Central Asia

Factor

KAZ

KRG

TAJ

TRK

UZB

IRN

TUR

Natural attractiveness

Relief

2

3

3

2

2

3

3

Climate

2

3

3

2

2

2

3

Water sources

1

3

2

1

1

2

3

Fauna and Flora

1

2

2

2

2

2

3

Coastal Resorts Potential

1

3

1

1

1

2

5

Results

1,4

3

2,4

1,4

1,6

2,2

3,4

Cultural and historical attractiveness

Archaeological sites

1

2

2

3

3

4

4

Historical towns

2

2

1

2

4

4

5

Art (museums and galleries)

1

1

1

2

2

4

4

Folk architecture

1

1

1

1

1

2

2

Results

1,25

1,5

1,25

2

2,5

3,5

3,75

Social Attractiveness

Famous events (festivals, sport events)

1

1

1

1

1

2

3

Entertainment

2

2

1

1

1

1

4

Kitchen and Folklore

1

2

1

2

2

2

4

Results

1,3

1,6

1

1,3

1,3

1,6

3,6

Material and technical basis

Visa and entry regime

3

4

2

1

2

2

4

Transport accessibility (esp. air)

3

3

1

2

3

3

5

Inland transport

3

3

1

2

2

3

4

Accommodation – range

2

3

1

1

2

3

5

Accommodation – top hotels

2

3

1

4

3

3

4

Telecommunication and Internet facilities

3

3

1

2

2

2

4

Information services (infocentres, promotion)

2

2

1

1

2

3

5

Travel Agencies (conditions of contracts, languages)

2

3

1

2

2

3

5

Organization of tourism (services, corruption)

2

3

1

2

2

3

4

Results

2,3

3

1,1

1,8

2,3

2,8

4.4

Psychological factors

Intention of going to the area

1

2

2

1

2

3

4

Remoteness and accessibility of the country

3

3

1

1

2

3

4

Knowledge about the country

2

2

2

1

2

3

4

Geopolitical awareness

1

2

1

1

1

2

3

Security feeling (fear of accidents, instability, terror)

3

3

1

2

2

2

4

Results

2

2,4

1,6

1,2

1,8

2,6

3,8

               

TOTAL RESULTS

1,65

2,30

1,47

1,54

1,94

2,54

3,79

 

KAZ – Kazakhstan, KRG – Kyrgyzstan, TAJ – Tajikistan, TRK – Turkmenistan, UZB – Uzbekistan, IRN – Iran, TUR - Turkey

1 – poor 2 – bad 3 – average 4 – good 5 - excellent