SEnECA Blog Post: Preserving while observing: ways for sustainable tourism in Central Asia

In the last decade, Central Asia has become an increas­ingly popular desti­nation for hikers and adventure-seeking travellers. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union and especially since the publi­cation of the first Lonely Planet for Central Asia in 1996, the region has been attracting more and more Europeans who seek to experience the picturesque alpine forests, want to try horse-riding or are eager to discover ancient Silk Road cities. With the increase of tourism, however, a number of problems has arisen, which have been a strain on the already vulnerable ecosystems in the region. While econom­i­cally benefitting some locals who are in one way or another involved in tourism, the growing amount of foreign visitors in the five Central Asian republics has also meant environ­mental degra­dation through carbon intensive devel­opment, resource ineffi­ciency and pollution of lakes, which are of great impor­tance as fresh water reserves for the region.

When planning my own 3‑week trip to Central Asia, I had to ask myself: what can I do to make this journey as sustainable as possible? What came to my mind was avoiding domestic and regional flights, selecting eco-friendly accom­mo­dation and following a vegetarian diet. The latter seemed an easy goal for a vegetarian, but turned out to be quite difficult in light of the meat-heavy Central Asian cuisine. Still, the motivation was high to have a low CO2 footprint and minimal impact on the environment during my journey.

Most travellers follow a similar route in Central Asia: they start out in Kazakhstan, work their way south to Kyrgyzstan and then move westwards to Uzbek­istan or further south to Tajik­istan. I chose the first option and was amazed at how easily I was able to purchase train tickets for Kazakhstan and Uzbek­istan online. Here, my Russian language skills were an asset because websites in Russian (such as often offer lower prices. Inter-city bus tickets are more difficult to acquire online, but buying in advance is usually not necessary. Tickets to cross the Kazak-Kyrgyz border (3 hours) are available on the spot at the Sayran Bus Station in Almaty and those to cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border from Bishkek to Tashkent (12 hours) can be bought at the Western bus station in Bishkek approx­i­mately three days in advance. Next to that, the cheap and cosy Soviet-style “marshrutkas” build a conve­nient trans­portation web connecting all cities and villages throughout the region.

Infor­mation on eco-friendly accom­mo­dation was more difficult to find. Websites such as “Green Pearls” or “Kiwano Hotels” do not offer green lodges in Central Asian countries yet. Therefore, I decided to book accom­mo­dation with small family-run businesses, and to avoid big hotel chains. To my surprise, I learned that when a family owns a hotel or hostel in Central Asia, it often lives in the same building or just next door. This not only leads to reduced energy consumption, but also creates an oppor­tunity for the traveller to learn more about local customs, to experience authentic regional cuisine and to befriend the hotel owners and staff. My favourite accom­mo­dation turned out to be an “Eco Yurt” in the mountain village Altyn-Arashan in north-east Kyrgyzstan. The yurt camp offered a natural hot spring as well as a delicious vegetarian “laghman”, a dish of pulled noodles and vegetables, which were extremely soothing after a five-hour hike from the city of Karakol. With good outer isolation, the yurt kept warm at night and was unexpectedly comfortable.

These experi­ences lead me to believe that sustainable tourism is possible in Central Asia if the govern­ments of the five republics are willing to take the issue of ecological degra­dation seriously and to pay close attention to environ­mental sustain­ability when devel­oping tourism. Here, the govern­ments can take countries such as Buthan or Switzerland as positive examples. The landlocked and mountainous Buthan, for instance, follows the motto of “high value, low impact”. This foresees a minimum daily tariff for tourists varying from 200 to 250 USD, which includes accom­mo­dation, a licenced guide and hiking equipment. This strategy is highly successful in preventing cheap mass tourism that is often so detri­mental for local ecosystems and biodi­versity. Central Asian states can adapt a similar strategy tailoring it to their own circum­stances and needs.

Furthermore, the European Union can contribute its part to eco-friendly tourism in Central Asia. In its recently published new strategy on Central Asia, the EU included the environ­mental dimension as one central policy area under the goal “Partnering for resilience”. When imple­menting the strategy in the upcoming years, the European External Action Service (EEAS) wants to focus on climate change next to connec­tivity and rule of law, as stated by Boris Yaroshe­vitch from the EEAS during the SEnECA Recom­men­da­tions Workshop in July 2019. Here, the EU should establish concrete ways to strengthen inter-regional and intra-regional platforms that deal with environ­mental gover­nance and ecotourism, mobilize public and private capital for environ­mental projects in Central Asia and share its own lessons learned from the devel­opment of sustainable tourism and waste management in the Alps.

One thing is certain: without political will and invest­ments in eco-friendly devel­opment, problems such as water pollution and scarcity, soil erosion and degra­dation of forests will accel­erate and threaten not only local ecosystems, but also human devel­opment in Central Asia. The lake Issyk-Kul in the Tien Shan mountain belt in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is already endan­gered through anthro­pogenic activ­ities such as pollution through tourism, overfishing and past and present indus­trial activity. The world’s fifths deepest lake and second largest high altitude lake shows signs of deteri­o­ration in form of increasing salinity and dwindling number of fish and plants that usually keep the health of the lake intact. According to several locals with whom I was able to speak during my journey, the Kyrgyz government keeps a low profile on the environ­mental degra­dation of the Issyk-Kul trying not to damage the idyllic image of the region and not to scare off tourists.

There are always two levels to tackle environ­mental challenges: the political and the personal one. On the personal level, I think it is extremely important to inform oneself in advance on the ecological situation in the desired travel desti­nation and on the existing infra­structure for ecotourism. Once one starts changing own travel habits (even with minor steps), family, friends and colleagues might get inspired to do the same. As an elderly Kazakh lady told me on an overnight train from NurSultan to Kostanay: “How we treat mother earth is how she treats us”. I think that this could be a great motto for tourism devel­opment in Central Asia.

SEnECA blog contri­bution by Tatjana Kuhn, research associate at the Centre inter­na­tional de formation européenne (CIFE) in Berlin