Summary: The key to developing tourism in Kazakhstan is to identify and then focus on touristic destinations that have or will have strong drawing power. Money invested in destinations with little power of attraction generally is wasted money. With the exception of ‘event tourism’, for the immediate future and perhaps indefinitely, tourism in Kazakhstan will remain primarily a domestic matter bolstered by a relatively modest number of foreign tourists.
Touristic Drawing Power Explained
The present article discusses the concept of ‘touristic drawing power’. In my next article, I will assess Kazakhstan’s tourism drawing power for many of the types of tourism.
Kazakhstan has started an initiative called the “Tourism Industry Development Plan 2020”. It aims to establish five tourism clusters in Kazakhstan: Astana city, Almaty city, East Kazakhstan, South Kazakhstan, and West Kazakhstan Oblasts. It also seeks investment of U.S.$4 billion and the creation of 300,000 new jobs in the tourism industry by 2020. In short, the government wants the country to get into the international tourism business in a big way. In the face of declining oil prices and falling revenues for the state budget, the government put tourism on the development agenda, along with other sectors, in the hope of building a more diversified economy.
In regard to tourism, the challenge is to identify the ‘drawing power’ of touristic destinations, and then to underwrite those particular activities and projects that can build on their natural strengths. This is so not just for government support but as well for private sector investment by entrepreneurs interested in expanding tourism in Kazakhstan.
I use the term ‘drawing power’ to refer to the myriad of factors that affect the attractiveness of a touristic destination to tourists. That destination might be the country itself, a city, a monument, a natural geographical feature, a cultural element, a sports fixture, a mountain to climb, a mountain or lake resort, or whatever else tourists find of interest.
Developers should start with an assessment of the intrinsic attractiveness of a candidate touristic destination. For example, does a candidate monument have historical significance? is it located in an area of natural beauty? does it have any other features that will resonate with visitors? is it easily accessible? is it in close proximity with other attractions? If not, the chances are that you should search elsewhere for a candidate destination.
In addition to intrinsic attractiveness, a whole host of additional factors come into play in assessing the drawing capacity of a destination. These include such things as: ease of visa or visa-less entry into the country, scheduling and cost of transportation, availability and cost of accommodation upon arrival, language issues, signage at the destination, safety at the destination, adequacy of local tourism infrastructure (guides, food and drink, brochures, public toilets). Most of these will be outside the control of a developer but nevertheless they must be taken into account as part of the evaluation process for a site.
Drawing power thus has many elements and to a large extent is subjective in nature. Rather than attempt a more definitive definition of it, let me drive home the concept by means of an illustration. Bear with me; the concept is important.
Niagara Falls versus Budakovka Falls
Niagara Falls, bordering the State of New York and the Canadian Province of Ontario has enormous drawing power. This is beyond dispute. 12,000,000 people visit the huge falls each year. The area has an established tourism infrastructure that includes the ability to accommodate more than 14,000 guests in hotels, motels and the like each night. The sheer magnificence of the falls attracts people from near and far. It has long been a honeymoon destination. In one spot it is possible to walk behind the falls with water cascading in front of you practically within arm’s reach. Observation towers are nearby. Some visitors take the ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat tour far below in the spray generated by the falls. In short, it’s a place to which large numbers of people want to go and do go year after year.
By contrast, and without meaning to denigrate it, Budakovka Falls, which is just off the road to Medeo, has very low touristic drawing power. True, it is good for a hiking excursion, is close to the large city of Almaty, and is accessible to even non-serious hikers. But no one will travel from Astana, much less China, Russia or the West, specifically for the purpose of going to see Budakovka Falls. No tourism infrastructure has been developed to support the visitors for the simple reason that the falls does not have sufficient attraction power. In some seasons, the area suffers from a disease issue: visitors need to be wary of encephalitis-causing wood ticks. Not exactly a welcome feature if you want to commercially exploit the falls.
I’ve been to Budakovka Falls a few times in different seasons, and I would go again if I still lived in Almaty. The simple fact, however, is that Budakovka Falls is not a candidate for serious government or private investment in the hope of generating income and tax revenue
As a potential investor or entrepreneur, you might consider setting up shop in the vicinity of Niagara Falls; one of your main considerations there will be the competition, not the undeniable attractiveness of the falls. At Budakovka Falls, you won’t have competition to worry about – your worry will be about the lack of future customers.
The Wall Drug Store Example
Does this mean that smaller objects in remote places might as well do nothing to promote themselves as destinations for tourists? The answer to that is an emphatic ‘no’. There is always hope, and local tourism. The imperative, however, is to scale the investment in accordance with the drawing power of the object.
Consider the case of Wall Drug Store. Ah, you might wonder what that might be.
The town of Wall is located in a desolate part of South Dakota, in an area not unlike the steppe of Kazakhstan, near the Badlands National Park. It currently has a population of less than 800 people divided into 212 families.
In 1931 a pharmacy opened in the town of Wall and it subsequently became famous throughout the United States and beyond. The pharmacy first attracted attention by giving away free ice in the 1930s. That was a clever ploy. Travelers from afar driving across the hot and dusty Great Plaines very much appreciated that gesture, and the fame of Wall Drug Store grew. The owners responded to their new status by expanding their store, selling keepsakes, souvenirs, touristic items, and more. Soon ‘road signs’ began to appear throughout the world pointing in the direction to Wall Drug Store and showing how many thousands or hundreds of miles one had to travel to get there. In the heyday of car-based tourism in the United States, everyone who drove through Wall, such as on their way to Mount Rushmore, stopped at the famous Wall Drug Store. Quite a few went there just to say they have been at the famous store. Of course they bought souvenirs, stayed for lunch and enjoyed the other attractions. It still happens today. The original pharmacy has morphed into a shopping mall consisting of a drug store, gift shop, restaurants and various other stores.
Marketing can make the unattractive into something entirely different.
In my next article I will assess several categories of tourism in the hope of identifying those in Kazakhstan worthy of significant public or private investment and promotion while winnowing out those that, highly thought of as they might be to some, necessarily won’t receive big investment.
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