Why you should care
Because American tourists haven’t ruined Kyrgyzstan. Yet!
A warning for ye who seek the undiscovered and the unspoilt travel spot, the underappreciated and the unexpected business opportunity: The world is coming to a place you can likely neither spell nor pronounce.
Kyrgyzstan is set to be the fastest-growing visitor destination in the world.
Yes, you read correctly — a travel boom in Kyrgyzstan. That’s the verdict from the World Travel and Tourism Council, which projected in its most recent report that the former Soviet bloc nation would grow its travel and tourism sector by 8.2 percent per year over the next decade, the best mark in the world. So why did Kyrgyzstan — rhymes with “Dear Miss Fawn” — place ahead of Myanmar, which has attracted tons of global attention for its emergence from isolation?
For starters, the Central Asian nation has a small base to build on. The sector brought in $300 million, or 3.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, last year. (Compare that with $488 billion in the United States.) Based on a joint analysis with Oxford Economics, the WTTC estimates Kyrgyzstan will bring in $610 million (5.1 percent of GDP) in 2025.
The projections are almost evenly split between business travel and the tourist trade. Although the aims are different, the visitors are drawn for similar reasons: “Kyrgyzstan is one of the last pretty unspoiled, untouched destinations on this planet,” says Kemal Kantarci, co-author of Tourism in Central Asia: Cultural Potential and Challenges. For tourists, that can mean a home stay in a yurt as they travel along the ancient Silk Road. They can seek out Tuzkol Lake, the nation’s own salty, mountain-ringed Dead Sea. Positioned smack in the middle of Russia, Europe, China and the Middle East, Kyrgyzstan is a short flight from a slew of population centers, but it has yet to be overrun with holidaymakers. The big draws for foreign industrialists are gold mines, along with agriculture and an underdeveloped service sector.
Kyrgyzstan became the only country in the region to waive any visa requirements for visitors coming for less than two months from more than 40 developed countries, according to the WTTC, a critical enticement for newcomers. “The country has also been developing a plan to market and promote tourism to the country and introduce Kyrgyzstan as an attractive destination,” says Annebeth Wijtenburg, of the WTTC. “Kyrgyzstan is [a] widely diverse country, so it is important that the government continues to promote the various assets the country has to offer.” Kyrgyzstan’s tourism promotion board did not respond to requests for comment.
Instability and corruption remain the prime roadblocks. A 2010 revolution led to the ouster of Kyrgyzstan’s leaders and to deadly ethnic clashes in the country’s south. The intervening years have seen more leadership swaps and corruption scandals, and foreign investors still battle a thicket of regulations, though the pro-Russia government is trying to present a welcoming face to the world. News that one of the terrorists who attacked the Istanbul airport in June was from Kyrgyzstan did not do the country any PR favors. “The safety and security perception depends on the peace in the country and peace in the region,” Kantarci says, a nod to the fragility of growth projections.
And like any unspoiled place, Kyrgyzstan will have a hard time staying that way once the word gets out. Kantarci said the government is aware of the need to develop sustainable tourism to preserve its allure. But it’s easy to abandon environmental scruples in a short-term race for cash.