Kyrgyzstan’s tourism contribution to the country’s GDP has not budged in recent years –varying between 4% in 2007 and 4.2% in 2011, Ainoura Sagynbayeva, director of SIAR Research and Consulting Group, said.
Officials are trying to address several issues that would remove barriers and improve the overall tourist experience and thus make the country more of a tourist destination, Economy Ministry official Tilek Sayakbayev told Central Asia Online.
The Economy Ministry hired SIAR to conduct a study on Kyrgyz tourism in which it polled 1,750 tourists ages 18 and over from both Kyrgyzstan and abroad.
Tourists spend less than Kyrgyzstan would like, the study concluded. More than 50% of tourists coming to Kyrgyzstan visit Lake Issyk-Kul and 30% visit museums, spending an average of only US $86 (4,200 KGS) per day.
Tourism dollars help grease the wheels of the economy in several ways. First, spending keeps restaurants, hotels and other attractions afloat; second, the government gets money in the form of surcharges and taxes that it can put back into the industry.
Challenges the country faces
The tourism sector’s lack of vision sets Kyrgyzstan at a disadvantage, Sagynbayeva said.
“Kyrgyzstan … doesn’t set a common direction or lay out a vision for developing the tourist industry, and there is no continuity in policy,” she said. “The human resources, and consequently the level of service, don’t reach the level we need.”
Kyrgyzstan has been working to restore tourism since the revolution and ethnic riots in April and June 2010, she said.
Simple changes can improve the tourist experience, she asserted. “We’ve made recommendations to the Economy Ministry. … The [ministry] was very open. It has discussed this report with us and with tourism providers,” she said, noting that not only the cleanliness of hotel rooms and restrooms but also the attitude of waiters and hotel staff goes a long way in regard to customer satisfaction. “We need to improve our airports too. Tourists form their first impression from border guards, customs officers and taxis.”
Breaking down tourism hurdles
Removing travel barriers is also crucial in encouraging outside visitors, Sayakbayev said. “In the summer of 2012, we abolished entry visas for tourists from 44 [wealthy] countries.”
Since visa-free entry became the norm for those countries, the number of tourists contacting Kyrgyz travel agencies has increased by 66%, according to the Kyrgyz Association for Community-Based Tourism (KATOS).
Sagynbayeva suggested an “open skies” policy that would allow foreign airlines to compete for flight slots to enter and depart Kyrgyzstan.
Finally, money is needed to revitalize the sector, Asylbek Rajiyev, executive director of KATOS, told Central Asia Online. Having more money in the industry promotes competition for that money, he said, which in turn would improve the quality of service.
KATOS is actively working on new ways to develop tourism, Rajiyev said.
“In every oblast, we’re teaching the public how it can begin to make money from tourism,” he said. “We’ve already trained 2,500 people, and as a result, 17 groups [of trainees] have opened their own tourist facilities.”