Photo from http://www.consul-kazakhstan.org.hk/tourist.php
Quite a long time ago I spent a year studying in Paris, France, and that is where I got a strong notion of what bedrock, undeniable tourism is all about. The first signs of spring were not merely the flowers blossoming. No, it was heralded as well by the arrival of American Express buses filled with sightseeing Americans.
After a year of blending into the French scene, the sighting of these buses was to me a cringe-inducing experience. The Americans were too loud, too conspicuous, too camera laden and too enclosed in their own self-contained bubble. Their brash clothing looked like it might have been purchased at a cheap shop on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii – utterly out of tune with the more soberly dressed Parisians. They may have seen a lot but they missed out entirely, or merely skimmed the surface, of Paris as a French experience rather than an experience mainly remembered as a bus-riding/follow-the-tour-leader’s raised umbrella experience.
My understanding of the concept of tourism was further refined when, near the end of my year in Paris, I went to a wine festival in Rudesheim in Germany. Rudesheim am Rhine is a winemaking town in the Rhine Gorge, and it attracts a large number of German tourists. Now, if the American tourists made me cringe, the Germans practically made me laugh so outlandish was their behaviour. No piece of touristic junk was too garish (cheap looking) for them to purchase. And loud? The Americans, by comparison, seemed subdued.
My point is that, based on my understanding of what tourists look like, you don’t see many of them in Central Asia and probably not in the Trans-Caucasus region. The group tours are not yet that popular, the knick-knack trade is not yet that developed, and the buses are not yet there in numbers. Where are the post cards? Where are the umbrella wielding tour guides?
Of course I have come to learn that not all tourists are simply sightseers riding on buses. Tourists also include medical tourists, wild game hunters, mountain climbers, rock climbers, skiers, hikers, gourmet tourists, the culture curious, birdwatchers, history researchers, and many more. Also, there are internal tourists, local people who simply want to travel and see more of their own country.
On Tuesday, December 15, 2015, I attended a seminar put on by CATBIG, a business-to-business network for UK based companies focusing on the countries of Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus. CATBIG is part of British Expertise which refers to itself as the leading UK private sector organization for British companies offering professional services internationally.
The event, chaired by Peter Lindsay, was informative and certainly offered the participants the chance to network with people of shared interests.
Independent travel consultant George Smith kicked off the meeting with a stimulating overview of tourism in Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus. He presented statistics drawn from the United Nations showing that tourism has grown steadily for several years in every one of the countries under discussion, and he noted that every expectation is that this will continue and increase in future years. Perhaps reflecting the optimism of the tourist industry, he did not refer specifically to the continuing economic crisis affecting most of the countries of the region.
His speech did make me wonder about the reality behind the statistics. He acknowledged that there was no refinement of the UN statistics, such as carving out business visitors from other visitors. Nor was there any mention of the growth – as there seems to me to be – in internal tourism. My guess is that the UN figures basically cover airport arrivals or perhaps visa declaration forms. Still, the macro view seems unchallenged that tourism in this area has grown and will continue to grow.
Michael Whitehead, head of the London office of Air Astana, made a solid pitch for his company – young fleet of airplanes, commendable safety record, and expansion of routes. He acknowledged that having hubs in both Almaty and Astana causes some logistical problems for the firm, but he spoke confidently of the future. He personally did not mention that British Airways has suspended its Almaty-London route as currently being economically non-viable, but a member of the audience did, drawing a few “boos” (aimed at BA, not the participant who spoke out) and some polite if slightly derisive laughter.
Mr. Whitehead mentioned some of the touristic attractions of Kazakhstan but this was too broad a subject to allow much detail. That was, to me, unfortunate, as Kazakhstan (my main country of interest), has many attractions but, due to its size and underdeveloped infrastructure for tourism, equally faces many challenges as a tourist destination.
Nigel Peters, a director at British Expertise International, informed us about the two-week tour he took last summer through Uzbekistan, across Kyrgyzstan and into China where his goup spent a weekend. It was clear from his speech and his many photographs that cultural tourism is interesting and educational but also challenging, such as: Uzbekistan’s ban on coaches in Fergana Valley – the group had to transfer to cars; the breakdown of their coach; and the closing of the Chinese border posts for all of the entire weekend and for 2 ½ hour closings at lunch and siesta on week days, hence the need for the China leg of the trip to occupy the full weekend.
The formal meeting concluded with a presentation by James Scipioni, supported by his colleague Marta Mills, concerning their efforts to establish the Transcaucasian Trail, being trekking routes in Georgia. One route will eventually cover a scenic path from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Another route will run from north to south, and there will be less challenging paths running off from them. Suffice to say that this is still in the stage of planning and early development, but it is inspired by the belief that tourism is growing in the region.
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