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Issyk-Kul: Chasing short-term profit

Written by on Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Business and Economics, Kyrgyzstan

There are many ways for a developing country to make its economy work and improve. Since Kyrgyzstan, like its neighboring countries does not have reliable natural resources such as gas, cotton fields or oil, it tries to rely on tourism as one of the maybe not fundamental, but a profitable sector of economy. Last decade a number of private firms started to establish and today lots of small and big tourism companies function in the industry. Issyk-Kul has attracted many tourists from different parts of the world by turning into one of the major source of tourism development. Kyrgyz government is trying to attract foreign investment to develop the infrastructure of tourism.

Called “The Pearl of Central Asia” Issyk-Kul is believed to be one of 20 ancient lakes on earth and is estimated to be approximately 25 million years old. At 2,300 feet deep, 105 miles long and 43 miles across, Lake Issyk-Kul is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world. And at 5250 feet above sea level, Lake Issyk-Kul is also the world’s second largest alpine lake, after Lake Titicaca in South America.

However, there is a big question one has to ask: do we really want to develop the tourism industry? Even though it brings many benefits for the economy and for the people, there is a high risk of negative effects and consequences. There is an argument that tourism in least developed countries can bring enormous ecological and environmental damages. According to State Secretary Adahan Madumarov, last year 1,2 million tourists visited Issyk-Kul. This year the number of tourists is anticipated to achieve almost 1,5 million people. Environmental specialists and experts believe that this is to much for Issyk-Kul since it can allow maximum of 1 million tourists a year.

Recently I had a chat with a family living nearby the lake Issyk-Kul, in the village called Bosteri. Each year all 6 members of the family impatiently wait for summer with a great hope to earn money. This coming summer is not an exception. They own a small café on the shore of the lake offering meal service to visiting tourists. People living in the villages close to the lake make a good profit during “hot season” in summer providing service to tourists. They seem to be least concerned about the consequences as long as they make money for living.

It made me think deeply about the future fate of the lake and the consequences of such a phenomenon. So, is it really worth chasing for profit at the expense of ecology? What will be the future of the lake and nearby regions in 30-40 years?

I believe that one of the solutions to this problem is a responsible tourism, or ecotourism. Ecotourism means minimizing the negative impact of tourism on the environment, bringing both economic social benefits to the inhabitants of the area. It also contributes to conservation of natural and cultural heritage and includes local communities in its planning, development and operation. Many global and international environmental organizations believe that ecotourism has great potential for sustainable development. Kyrgyzstan should make an emphasis on ecotourism as a way to promote sustainable tourism. Well-planned and managed ecotourism has proven to be one of the most effective tools for long-term conservation of biodiversity.

If tourism companies start focusing on these goals of ecotourism it will bring a lot more profit in the long run, because if the environment and local people get social benefits from the tourism business, this will bring more benefits back to the tourism market. These benefits should be distributed evenly all over the country; all the small villages nearby the lake should have their shares in these benefits.

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  • Ataman Rakin says:

    Thanks Asel. Good piece.

    IMO there are two parallel tourism markets and practices in Kyrgyzstan:

    one centred around Issyk Kul that mainly serves harmful mass tourism form Almaty and Bishkek (over 80% of visitors are from those places, much of the rest from other parts of Kazakhstan and from Russia);

    and another that is directed towards Western and more ‘alternative’ Russian travelers coming for trekking, climbing and the cultural experience: Pik Lenina and Khan Tengri; the Community-Based Tourism network ( http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg ) which is a quite unique concept).

    Some point to the potential of Chinese middle class tourists, yet that is really the last thing I wish to happen to the Kyrgyz! That is some of the most disgusting plagues that you can have.

    I agree that it is not smart to have tourism an economic key sector. Why? First, there are enough examples in the world of tourism activities staying firmly in the hands of companies linked to regime goons who bring very little benefit to the local population, where protected nature areas are being destroyed for resort construction by the same sort of companies and where the degeneration of local society paves the way for sex tourism and its spin-offs like aids.

    Second, very often tourism development undermines its very own assets: if you pour concrete and put resorts everywhere (as they will), then you destroy that very natural beauty that you promote; likewise, I am sceptical about the jingle of ‘an interesting local culture’… ; look, after the Soviet Union and 15 years of ‘transition’, what is left of tradiational Kyrgyz nomadic culture really, except for a folklorised version? Do we really want the Kyrgyz to become some sort of anthropolgical tourist curiosity like the Native Americans?

    Third, tourism is too much of a vulnerable sector to be over-dependent on. The slightest political unrest — or inflated coverage thereof by the global media – and off it goes. One example is Nepal, where you have villages who put all their eggs in the trekking/tourism basket only to end up destitute when tourism collapsed because of the Maoist guerrillas. Like/believe it or not, Central Asia is going to become more unstable in the future. Therefore I think that Kyrgyzstan ‘s key sector should be st. fundamental i.e. agriculture.

    “I believe that one of the solutions to this problem is a responsible tourism, or ecotourism.”

    As I said, there are already initiatives of the kind eg. CBT, and META in Murgabn/the Eastern Pamirs. But I would not foster too much illusions about the Issyk Kul area. They’re going to destroy it.


  • Aibek says:

    I am also worried about Issyk-Kul’s future as it is already on the way of being polluted and overcrowded. As Ataman said, majority of the visitors are those from Almaty and Bishkek who is in search of cheap and decent holiday with beach, sunbathing and swimming. Those who can afford already going for Turkey, and even Thailand. And the lake became a big pie around which there will more businesses built, more resorts and private service points set, and more visitors attracted by affordable holiday chances. Thus more problems to come with. As an example, I could give Pattaya in Thailand. It used to be one of the tourist hot spots and especially popular among Russian tourists. I was there 2 years ago, and what I saw was far behind the described beauty. Dirty town overcrowded with prostitues, muddy and not-that-crystall-clear sea, unreasonable prices, half-empty hotels, nothing much of natural beauty at least along the beaches around the town.
    It is hard to educate tourists, or should I say impossible. And our central asian people are a bit behind in practicing the concept of responsible tourism. I’d say neither government nor locals are much bothered about it. But ecotourism is still what we really need. We still have much of unspoilt nature we need to protect, and advance plans of ecotourism should be made to develop such responsibility in people from the beginning. We have much to offer for visitors.
    Thanks Ataman for link to CBT, seems like great initiative! It reminded me of my few European friends who have been to Xinjiang Province (Qashgar, Urumchi) recently on a so-called “SilkWay Nomadfest” (see http://devrim.nomadlife.org), and was fascinated about the people and their lifestyle there. Majority of the people living there are Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, etc. Just an experience of staying over-night in kyrgyz yurtas, riding horses and camels, visiting livestock markets, shopping in local bazaars fascinated them so much. Or I remember they have sheep farms open for tourists in Taiwan where the tourists go there specifically to watch the sheeps, feed them and try their milk. Central Asia is still unexplored for majority of people, and Kyrgyzstan has much to offer for those who wants to “explore the unexplored”.


  • Asel says:

    Ataman, thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right about mass tourism flow from neighboring countries. This is very sharp and huge issue which is worth discussing separately. I can only tell that I was completely surprised hearing from a friend of mine from Issyk-Kul region that now foreign people are buying land on the shore of the lake. Foreigners are investing huge money there. This, of course, made prices for property rise dramatically, by three or even five times. So local people simply cannot afford any property.

    You made a very good point saying that tourism should not be key sector of economy. For example, Japan’s island called Okinawa is one of the most prominent recreation resorts with highly developed infrastructure. Its many hotels and spas are owned by American companies and the island still remains very poor with low standards if living. We surely do not want that happen to Issyk-Kul. Obviously Kyrgyzstan should not and cannot depend on tourism and rely on it as an economic engine, especially now when political instability seems to turn into chronic phenomenon. Alternative to this, like you say, is agriculture. The development and prosperity of agriculture is very crucial because half of the population in Kyrgyzstan depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

    I just have one question. You seem to be very confident to say that Central Asia will become more unstable in the future. What makes you think so except its geopolitical location which partly explains your statement?


  • Ben says:

    Excellent post Asel, and welcome aboard!

    I agree with most of the comments you guys make apart from the anti-Chinese sentiments abound here and there… I think there are more PC ways to express fear over “Chinese middle class” hordes Ataman.

    It will be difficult to control the growth of resort towns and beach-Disneylands. Maybe one needs to designate development areas more conservatively like it has been done on some Mediterranean islands.

    I for my part was really put off by Balykchy and Cholpon-Ata and would be sad if each square meter of shoreline undergoes the same development.

    I’ve never been to Karakol, but how’s the tourism situation over there?


  • [...] is worried that the pursuit of short-term profit from tourism is ruining Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-kul. Share [...]

  • Andrew says:

    And so the memory of a hike from the Bolshoi Almatinskoi Lake, through the Chon Ki Min Valley and then over the pass to Issik kul, all the way to the shore where we took off our shirts and boots and soaked in the crystal clear water, surrounded by the peaks and glaciers of the southern, northern and western coasts, might soon be a memory? Will it look like Miami Beach or the Jersey Shore or Kap-Chigai? Will that sense of walking from nature to pasture and then to village be lost? Zhal’….


  • Asel says:

    Thanks, Ben.
    Karakol city can offer limited tourist facilities, but offers much for adventure travelers. Karakol is famous for its Ski base. At 3040 meters, it is the highest ski resort in Central Asia. It takes about half an hour to get there from the city and you can stay at the hotel. I heard they recently purchased a new ski equipment. There is also Karakol Canyon which offers excellent hiking. From this canyon people usually hike to beautiful Ala-Kul lake. And of course most tourists go to Altyn Arashan and Jetioguz hot springs. Certainly you wouldn’t find these areas polluted and populated, but they are becoming a “must see” in Karakol


  • UA says:

    I think what saves Ysyk-kul is that the recreation period is quite short, only 2-3 months. Otherwise, it would be a mess long time ago. During summer tourists hurt the lake, and then the lake recovers till the next summer. The point is that it can’t last forever, since the it is the closed lake.

    YK should become an expensive, elite place for rich people, fewer people but with more money. Unfortunately, it can’t serve mass tourism.


  • Asel says:

    UA, exactly, it is closed lake, and that’s why it can’t continuosly recover by itself. And, that’s the thing, because comparatively it’s cheaper than any other place, there is a massive flow of tourists. But, on the other hand, if only very rich people can afford it, which I assume would be mostly foreigners or our highly ranked officials, businessmen and so on, where will local ordinary people go and rest in summer, since they cannot afford it?


  • Ataman Rakin says:

    “I think there are more PC ways to express fear over “Chinese middle class” hordes Ataman.”

    :))))lol Oh myyyyy shame on me! How did I ever *dared* to sin against the Supreme Dogma of liberal PC-ness?

    There is hope though…


  • Ataman Rakin says:

    “I can only tell that I was completely surprised hearing from a friend of mine from Issyk-Kul region that now foreign people are buying land on the shore of the lake. Foreigners are investing huge money there.”

    It would be interesting to know what kind of foreigners. Kazakhs: yes they are very active there. Other than that: Chinese; Russians; Turks?


  • Ataman Rakin says:

    For those interested, here is an IWPR wire about a similar issue (blyn I could have pasted it in the other replies but found it afterwards so anwyay… )

    Plan to Boost Tourism Seen as Flawed


    The Kyrgyz government wants to create a free economic zone on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, the country’s major tourist area, but NBCentralAsia observers warn that the scheme will be vulnerable to abuse and may bring few tangible benefits.




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