Central Asian countries are currently trying to recover their tourism economies. Just like in the rest of the world, this industry in the region was affected one of the first and more than others.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the proposals about tourism cooperation between the countries of the region and the creation of a single tourism market appear. According to the Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Tourism Development of Uzbekistan Fakhriddin Davrukov, the republic pays special attention to intensifying work on joint routes and tourism products in the Central Asian region.
«We are confident that cross-border tourism is the best way to present tourists with a unique opportunity to plunge into an authentic way of life, to experience the culture, national experiences and traditions of the Central Asian population. To achieve this goal, we must start cooperating in organising joint expeditions to study the prospects of the cross-border routes, improving road infrastructure, launching official tourist bus routes between our cities; to implement joint initiatives, such as Silkway Visa, a single exhibition stand for the regional countries at major international travel expos,» he said at the X Central Asian Trade Forum.
Fakhriddin Davrukov is convinced that such cooperation would inevitably draw attention of the international community to the region as a single tourist destination and would be beneficial to each country.
The Head of the Tourism Department of Turkistan region of the Republic of Kazakhstan Gulmira Akhberdiyeva also believes that the tourism sector in Kazakhstan should be developed by the active cooperation with the closest neighbours.
«Cooperation in tourism between countries that have a common mindset, history, culture, traditions, language similarity, which bring them together and unite into a single whole Central Asia, is economically beneficial for each of them and will contribute to the balanced economic growth of our countries,» she believes.
She recalled that in December 2019, in Almaty, the business community of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism and the creation of a regional tourism product at the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) tourism seminar. Within the framework this agreement, these countries can initiate many tourist routes in Central Asia for visiting several countries at once.
During the same event, it was proposed to create a Tourism Council of the countries of the region for intercountry coordination and interaction in the tourism industry, following the example of the Asia-Pacific Tourism Association, and to start forming a single information network for tourism and government authorities.
However, despite these favourable conditions for the creation of a joint regional tourism product and the expansion of interaction and cooperation, as Gulmira Akhberdiyeva noted, there are a number of issues in the Central Asian tourism sector that need to be addressed at the interstate level.
They are: the necessity to simplify the rules of border, customs and migration control; the introduction of a unified Silkway Visa; the development of transport and information communications; the introduction of unified standards of tourist services; a single system of professional and advanced training of personnel; agreement on the methods for collecting and processing statistical data in the field of tourism. In addition, it is necessary to address the creation and joint promotion of competitive tourism products of the Central Asian countries at the international level, and the creation of a single database on the tourism opportunities of the region.
According to the Deputy Director of the Department of Tourism of the Kyrgyz Republic Kyyal Kenzhematova, it is necessary to adopt a joint program for the tourism restoration in the region.
She said that the Kyrgyz side intends to send a number of relevant proposals to the Central Asian countries, in particular, those regarding digitalization, the development of tours along regional routes, joint tourist products along the Great Silk Road. In her opinion, it is also necessary to harmonize the legislation of our countries, to develop single legal norms for staying in the countries.
«Borat» Comes to Rescue
Meanwhile, according to the international experts, despite the high tourism potential of the region, the world still knows very little about it. The co-founder of the IndyGuide travel resource, an ethnic Kazakh who grew up and lives in Switzerland Ati Tosun says that there is a lack of information about Central Asia and it is not available. He states that due to this and the low recognition level, the region often receives negative coverage.
Low recognition level is one of the reasons why the location of the Sacha Baron Cohen movie «Borat» is Kazakhstan. He stated:
«I chose Kazakhstan because in the United States, almost no one knew anything about it. This allowed us to create an insanely comic fake world. The real Kazakhstan is a wonderful country with a modern, proud people, in contrast to «Borat» version».
Meanwhile, the hero’s catchphrase «Very nice!» became the slogan for the advertising campaign to popularize Kazakhstan and attract foreign tourists to it. The author of the idea is the founder of Almaty Walking Tours (a provider of walking tours around the city), an American living in Almaty Dennis Keen. He called «Borat» a blessing and a curse for Kazakhstan.
«Some people consider this movie very offensive,» he explained. «At the same time, it is very rare when the Central Asian country is so widely discussed. When I heard about «Borat-2» release, I realized that people would talk about Kazakhstan, whether they like it or not. We need to use this hype properly and promote a positive image of Kazakhstan by using it.»
The short videos that end with the enthusiastic comment «Very nice!» show the beautiful views of Kazakhstan. Thus, as the idea’s author notes, a new slogan is given to Kazakh tourism. He admitted that it was a pleasure to observe the feedback: in a few days after the launch, the video gathered over a million views, the international leading media – The New York Times, BBC wrote about it.
«This demonstrated interest in Kazakhstan,» the source is sure. «These videos show the beautiful nature of Kazakhstan and its residents: kind, hospitable, sincere people. For many people, this was a wonderful discovery that would awaken the desire to come to real Kazakhstan».
Creative Director and Founder of WideOyster Marco Barneveld, in turn, told about a joint information campaign with USAID designed to accelerate tourism recovery in Central Asia and inspire travelling there.
The campaign’s content includes the «Special Central Asia» section in travel stories and photographs, as well as videos from travel companies from each country. Ten remotely produced video messages include a call to book a trip to the region.
The Perfect Post-COVID Tourism Destination
During the Central Asian Trade Forum, various proposals were made on the title of a single tourist brand for the region. Dennis Keen believes that the region can already be presented as the excellent post-COVID tourism destination.
«After spending a lot of time indoors, people want to breathe fresh air and relax in free space,» he said. «They will need space, and this word, in my opinion, summarizes Kazakhstan. The wide-open space is very attractive psychologically. People will look for opportunities to escape the city, to learn and discover something new, to ride and walk the land. People will be looking for space, for large open spaces.»
The Director of the Kyrgyz Ak-Sai Travel company Elena Kalashnikova is confident that Central Asia, in particular, Kyrgyzstan, is a real paradise for outdoor activities.
«There are more than enough of these opportunities in our region,» Kalashnikova underscored. «We should focus on this – the outdoor activities, because a contact with the nature can really be healing.»
She added that the pandemic has changed the tourism role: it has ceased to be a luxury and has become a necessity. The digitalization, lack of emotion and interaction made it possible to understand the value of travel to nature. The importance of domestic tourism has also increased.
According to Kalashnikova, it is very important now to develop projects of «glamorous camping», or «glamping». This is an outdoor recreation with all the amenities and full hotel service. This type of recreation in attractive natural places for tourists will make it possible to avoid crowds of people, to study the nature and history of the countries of the Silk Road. In addition, it allows restoring positive emotions that are very important for people now.
According to the Regional Director of the Adventure Travel Trade Association for Europe and Central Asia Gergana Nikolova, adventures and outdoor activities became a new travelling trend.
«Previously, the term «adventure tourism» meant something risky, but now, it is associated with broadening one’s horizons, accepting challenges, being alone with nature,» she informed. «In particular, this is eco-friendly tourism, camping, mini eco-houses, etc. Tourists see this as a path to mental health, a new and unique experience.»
In addition, it is quite beneficial for the local economy. According to Nikolova, four tourists of adventure tourism generate the same income as 100 cruise ship tourists. About 65% of the costs of a person who chooses adventure tourism remain in the country where they are vacationing, while only 15% remain from the mass tourism.
At the same time, Central Asia has a huge potential for the development of adventure tourism: there are a lot of natural monuments, various landscapes and a diverse climate.
Ati Tosun is confident that the region can greatly benefit from the new realities of the tourism industry. In addition to the great interest of travellers in outdoor activities, the desire to travel to nature and clean environment, he highlighted other trends.
«Today, many travellers prefer closer destinations rather than long journeys,» the expert said. «This is the reason for the growth in the number of tourists from Asia. We observe a decline in the number of tourists from Europe and North America in 2020. I think this trend will be relevant for the next couple of years. The travellers will choose destinations that were previously out of sight, or underrated like Central Asia.»
The founder of the «Limon» travel company (Kazakhstan) Almas Muratuly believes that currently, the region can provide opportunities for the fans of winter sports: local ski resorts will cost several times cheaper than in European countries. In his opinion, natural places can also become an alternative to global tourist sites, in case of the proper infrastructure development, promotion, popularization, and excellent service.
He believes that in order to attract tourists to the region, it is necessary to use the historical and cultural brand of the Great Silk Road. First, it is necessary to attract tourists from China, who spend more than others while travelling.
At the same time, the entrepreneur noted that in order to promote country as a safe destination for foreign tourists, the political stability is needed, which is not present in all countries of the region.
Experts advise to consider these and other trends that already have an impact on the business and tourism destinations, in current work and in creating strategies for further development. At the same time, we should not forget about digitalization as a necessary component of the current tourism business.
«The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of mobile and digital tools. Therefore, creating digital touchpoints and experiences will be essential. Social media and new media are the main sources of inspiration and information for travel decisions,» said Claude Blanc, Portfolio Director at World Travel Market (WTM).
He also noted that reopening tourism companies, controlling the recovery process so that they are safe, attractive to tourists, and economically stable, requires coordination at a level that has not been before. These tasks can be performed by the public sector.
Among the methods by which the governments can rethink their role in the tourism sector amid COVID-19, he highlighted the optimization of public-private interactions via the tourism management center.
«Concentrating key leadership in the control center is a crisis management technique that many organisations already implemented in similar situations,» says Claude Blanc. «Tourism management centers that bring together public, private and semi-private participants into project teams to address key issues could provide a platform for active collaboration.»
He noted that, according to some forecasts, it would take several years to return tourist demand to the level of 2019. The prolonged period of low demand shows that the ways of financing the tourism sector must change.
He considers another option: possible creation of a revenue pooling structure for hotels that could help asset owners and operators, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, to manage variable costs and losses in the future.
The hotels competing for the same segment in the same region could pool revenues and losses while operating under reduced capacity. Investment funds supported by the government could also leverage private capital to provide and help SMEs to survive this crisis.
Among the initiatives, Blanc also noted the gradual resumption of work, taking into account the possible “travel bubbles”. This term appeared in COVID-19 era and means the opportunity to travel safely during the pandemic within a closed and strictly defined list of neighbouring countries.
Today, there are many discussions about restarting the tourism industry based on the “travel bubbles” principle. It is included in various tourism revival strategies and scenarios. By all accounts, the current period of calm and low demand is the best time to develop them, design marketing strategies, and, in general, rebuild a tourism business that will never be the same.