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Traveling to #Explorestan: Tourism Prospects as a Regional Economic Engine

In the eternal city of Rome, a local’s curt retort to a tourist’s plea for direction to the storied Colosseum epitomizes a European populace wearied by the relentless surge of tourism. Although economically advantageous, this phenomenon has precipitated a slew of social and environmental tribulations, from inflated housing costs to water scarcity, culminating in a pervasive sense of overcrowding.

In this milieu, the countries of Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—situated on the ancient Silk Road, are emerging as burgeoning hubs for the travel-inclined. These regions, steeped in history and splendor, remain enigmas to the majority of foreign travelers, despite a global uptick in wanderlust.

The ingenious conception of ‘Explorestan’ weaves the act of discovery into the identity of these nations. The inventive branding amalgamates ‘explore’ with the common suffix -stan to foster a distinctive, positive image, strategically circumventing any unintended negative connotations associated with the region.

Kairat Sadvakasov, the Chairman of Kazakh Tourism, shares insights into Kazakhstan’s myriad attractions—pristine lakes, sprawling national parks, melodious sand dunes, imposing canyons, and vast steppes—all awaiting due recognition from the global community. “Kazakhstan is known as a country with rich mineral resources. But many people don’t even realize that we have beautiful lakes, national parks, singing barchans, majestic canyons, and endless steppes.”

Centrally located amid the world’s most populous nations and economies, such as Europe, China, Russia, Iran, and the Middle East, Central Asia is strategically positioned to entice tourists who covet multi-country itineraries. Historically, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have engaged in collaborative tourism efforts, promoting joint tours, whereas Tajikistan has engaged to a modest extent, and Turkmenistan remains relatively insular despite palpable tourist intrigue.

Lake near Almaty, Kazakhstan
Lake near Almaty, Kazakhstan. (Patrick Schneider)

Remarkably, the region is a custodian of history—ancient Saka burial sites, time-honored mausoleums, and architectural marvels are preserved here, where the tapestry of nomadic and Islamic cultures has been intricately woven with threads of Soviet and Western influences, yielding a cultural and culinary diversity. The region’s nightlife thrives with an array of entertainment clubs, restaurants, pubs, and, within designated zones, casinos. These nations are graced with temperate climes and promise year-round holiday potential.

The remarkable hospitality of Central Asians is legendary; guests are received with open arms and the warmth of centuries-old traditions.

In Kazakhstan, two specific tourism niches have flourished: The Silk Road and adventure tourism. Collaboration with neighboring countries is pivotal, given the Silk Road’s historical connections to China and its cultural relevance to European nations such as Italy and Spain.

Simultaneously, China has taken an active role in promoting not just tourism but significant business ventures within the region, including the Belt and Road Initiative and the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, effectively resurrecting the historical trade routes.

Adventure tourism represents a significant slice of the regional market, with expectations of a compound annual growth rate of 15.2% from 2022 to 2030. Kazakhstan, given its vast expanse, offers an array of adventures. For instance, a cohort of Chinese off-road enthusiasts is planning an epic traverse from Urumqi to Astana, intent on charting diverse terrains this August and September.

The realm of ski tourism—specifically freeriding—caters to those who seek the tranquility of untamed nature and the thrill of fresh powder. Central Asia boasts formidable mountain ranges, hosting stellar ski facilities at competitive prices.

Bilateral agreements are being enacted to bolster tourism in the region, yet the current global market share of these nations is a mere 0.1%. One deterrent is the global community’s limited awareness of Central Asia’s touristic offerings. In response, Kazakh Tourism is establishing international outposts to enhance global familiarity with the region.

Sadvakasov is optimistic about a gradual uptick in tourist arrivals. “We expect the number of tourists staying in hotels to increase to four million by 2029. We have about six million domestic tourists, and this figure is expected to increase to eleven million. Now that the tourism industry employs about half a million people, we want to bring this figure to eight hundred thousand.”

In a strategic move to deepen cultural connections, Kazakhstan has introduced visa-free travel for Chinese tourists to boost visitors.

Sadvakasov also underscores the burgeoning popularity of the tourism industry, noting the proliferation of flights and affordable airfare to Kazakhstan, alongside a well-developed hospitality infrastructure. The country boasts a robust workforce catering to the needs of tourists, with approximately one million visitors currently accommodated in hotels annually—a figure anticipated to quadruple by 2029.

Western media has also started to notice Kazakhstan’s appeal. The New York Times included Almaty in the rating of tourist destinations “52 Places to Go in 2024” and gave a flattering review of the city and local cuisine. And Lonely Planet named Uzbekistan one of the best tourist destinations in 2024. Global publications such as Le Figaro, The Guardian, and Lonely Planet listed Kazakhstan as one of the best places to visit in 2021. The British Backpackers Society ranked Kazakhstan among the top 5 places to visit in 2020 for active eco-travel enthusiasts; Russian media recognized Lake Kayindy as one of the world’s most beautiful mountain lakes; and Gulf News ranked the Big Almaty Lake among the top 5 destinations for residents of the United Arab Emirates.

Central Asia is a region rich with historical, cultural, and natural wonders, offering a comprehensive array of tourist experiences, from business and cultural ventures to nature and adventure escapades. To actualize its potential, strategic economic incentives and proactive image promotion are imperative. The tourism sector in Central Asia is on an upward trajectory, propelled by initiatives like visa simplifications and the ‘open skies’ policy, underscoring the region’s readiness to welcome tourists and court investors with its storied tradition of hospitality. As ‘Explorestan’ continues to dismantle outdated stereotypes of the former USSR, it paves the way for unique and memorable adventures, beckoning the world to discover its myriad charms.