The tourism Kyrgyzstan wants, the tourism Kyrgyzstan needs: Adventure and Sustainable Tourism
October 19, 2022
“Rethinking Tourism” is the global theme driving the travel industry forward in 2022. The pandemic highlighted the urgent need to transform the tourism sector and only accelerated trends that had started even before – sustainable tourism that is concurrently good for the planet, for the local people, and the local economy. The transformation is underway, and Kyrgyzstan has not been left behind.
The tourism industry is an important source of economic growth and job creation. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, tourism accounted for only 5.1 % of the country's GDP before the pandemic, dropping to about 3.5 % during 2020/21, but the sector is considered one of the key priorities for the country’s economy. This is reiterated in the Kyrgyz Government’s programme for tourism development for 2019-2023. The programme aims to improve the image of Kyrgyzstan as a destination for adventure, eco and agri-tourism, to ensure compliance with international standards, and to boost the sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP to 7 % by 2023.
Over the last decade, there has been a steady rise in the number of foreign tourists coming to Kyrgyzstan, , and accommodation facilities have almost doubled. However, the potential for adventure tourism has not been fully tapped since it is hindered by underdeveloped infrastructure, lack of qualified staff, and a dearth of fully-fledged touristic offer and promotion. Majority of tourists are from the neighboring countries, missing on the potential to attract flows from major European markets and the US, who are typically attracted by cultural and adventure activities. It is estimated that currently only 15-20% of the country’s tourism potential is being utilized. The perspective of looking into the region holistically as one touristic product is also being overlooked despite its promise to increase the attractiveness of the offer and promote regional integration.
Since 2018, UNDP’s Aid for Trade project has been supporting adventure tourism in Kyrgyzstan as one of the “green” industries with high potential to create jobs for the local people, especially women, and improve livelihood of the local communities. By working with the micro, small and medium tourism actors in Osh, Jalal-Abad, Naryn and Issyk-Kul regions of Kyrgyzstan, the project has offered extensive capacity building with trainings and knowledge resources in tourism management, marketing, and safety. With the grants to purchase new tour equipment, support to develop and test new tours, and networking to create stronger value chains, businesses have expanded their innovative offer even further, enhancing the experience of tourists visiting Kyrgyzstan.
For example, when tourists visit the Jany-Aryk village of Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan, they can get to know the nomad lifestyle of Kyrgyz people by lodging in a yurt camp. Aizada and Ruslan Zholdoshbekov, the couple who run the camp, also manage the tour operating company Son Kol Travel and offer guided tours to visitors. Aizada started her career as an interpreter for the company and served visitors at the guesthouse. With the Aid for Trade project, Aizada was involved in a cycle of trainings on tourism management, digital marketing, created a network with other tourism businesses, developed horse-back riding tour and received a project grant to purchase equestrian equipment.
"Very beneficial was also the support we received to develop and test two additional tour products that we now offer to our guests – the winter tour to the Son-Kul Lake, and the hiking tour between Zhumgal-Kazarman”, Aizada proudly shares. In combination with their networking through regional tourism forums and exhibitions, they have increased the number of customers and partners – other project beneficiaries. “Compared to 2019, the number of visitors has increased by 12 times, and most of them are from abroad” Aizada adds. “This has allowed us to employ six more people, four of which are women”. With a high unemployment rate among rural women in Kyrgyzstan, Aizada and Ruslan work is making significant change, bringing income and development to their village.
Aid for Trade’s support also has been very intensive in the Issyk-Kul region, home to the second largest mountain lake in the world and most developed tourism spot of the country. For decades, the Issyk-Kul Lake has been a popular destination for visitors from neighbor countries opting for traditional beach holiday. Recently, it is being increasingly recognized as an adventure tourism hub and attracts more foreign visitors who are seeking an active experience rather than just a static vacation.
Similarly to the support provided to Aizada in Narun, the project involved Danyar from the Karakol city of Issyk-Kul region, who owns a yurt camp and manages the tour company “Kara Kyz”. After a series of trainings, networking and marketing activities, Danyar managed to grow the business.
“With the increase in the number of tours in the company, there was an urgent need to increase the capacity of the team in matters of management, marketing and logistics. And for competitiveness in the market, it became necessary to develop new destinations and routes both in the region and in the republic.” Danyar says. They received a grant to purchase new camping gear, and now offer hiking tours around the lake as well as traditional culinary experiences in their yurt camp.
The Issyk-Kul Lake is also the first nature reserve in Kyrgyzstan, with endemic biodiversity. Another local tour operator, a guide and an active defender of the ecosystem, Ermek Shabykeev, has received support from Aid for Trade to further develop his creative touristic offer: horse-back riding and hiking tours blended with photo and video shooting sessions. This is precisely in line with younger generations of tourists hyped about having instant photos from their active vacation on their social media profiles. Ermek promotes these tours in specially protected natural areas. He has been supported by the Aid for Trade project to install bins for plastic collection in the Ak-Bulun micro-reserve. Also, he created and tested a new four-day horseback and hiking tour, connecting the Ton district of the Issyk-Kul region and the Kochkor district of the Naryn region. By enriching and diversifying the offer, now not only more local and foreign tourists visit the region but also spend longer days exploring the surroundings and the local culture, which ultimately has a positive effect on the influx and the local economy.
Global trends are changing and shaping the future touristic demand and offer. By providing continuous and wide support to adventure tourism actors, they will be better prepared to recognize tourism trends and to respond with full-fledged and innovative products. The development of adventure tourism benefits local communities, especially women, and taps into the emerging trend of sustainable tourism. This is a clear signal for the need to utilize as much as possible of Kyrgyzstan’s natural potential for such offer.
About the Aid for Trade project
The Aid for Trade in Central Asia, a project funded by the Government of Finland, has been implemented in Kyrgyzstan since 2009. In the current IV phase (2018 - September 2022), the project focused on three selected value chains: dried fruits and nuts, natural honey, and sustainable adventure tourism. These particular value chains were selected as they can utilize Kyrgyzstan’s natural and ecological attributes and climate in a sustainable and green manner, while growing in size, improving quality, increasing exports and creating new decent jobs for all, especially for women.
With the support provided during this latest project phase, nine new tour products have been developed, tested and are being successfully sold. In December 2021, five contacts were signed between Kyrgyz and foreign tour operators, resulting in sales of about USD 32,800 so far. Aid for Trade’s extensive support to promote berkutchi, a nomadic tradition with eagle hunters, has spurred so much interest to even catch the attention of a Netflix crew. The documentary which they filmed with the local protagonists will promote the local Kyrgyz traditions worldwide once released in late 2022. Finally, the Aid for Trade Phase IV contributed for opening of 117 new jobs in the tourism sector of Kyrgyzstan.