The Kyrgyz authorities cannot estimate travel to the country or capacities of this market
Official estimates of the foreigners vacating on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, the center of travel in Kyrgyzstan, differ. State officials in Bishkek boast that millions tourists visited the lake this year. The local authorities are noticeably less optimistic.
Quality over quantity
Travel centers are mostly located in the Issyk-Kul district. According to Murlan Nasirdinov, Mayor of Cholpotan (district administrative center), only about 500,000 foreigners came to the lake and nearby resorts this year. "Official sources estimated the bulk of tourists here at 800,000 people last year, but it was only about 500,000 actually," Nasirdinov said before adding that this year figures were expected to be even less than that.
Kyrgyz state TV channels reported not long ago that about 1.1 foreign tourists visited Kyrgyzstan and spent $160 million in this country in 2006. "Properly managed, this sector of economy may earn Kyrgyzstan $600-700 million a year," Turusbek Mamashov of the Kyrgyz State Travel Agency said. (Foreign travellers left $81.7 billion in the United States, $29.3 billion in China, $13.2 billion in Turkey, and $13.7 billion in Greece in 2006.)
Marketing Service Bureau claims in the meantime that the number of facilities for tourists in Kyrgyzstan nowadays is smaller than it was five years ago. Kyrgyz travel industry includes over 100 travel agencies, 120 hotels, resorts, and so on. More than 20,000 rooms for tourists are available in the country on every given day. Travel infrastructure (including attractions) is mostly concentrated in Bishkek and the Issyk-Kul region. Experts comment on shortage of accommodations for tourists. On the other hand, proper management of the existing facilities would have allowed for more than 1.8 million tourists.
At the same time, Marketing Service Bureau points out that most hotels, resorts, and spas on Lake Issyk-Kul are rated three and four stars, and prices there begin at $35. Cheaper hotels are needed. Specialists comment on the acute shortage of the sites in Kyrgyzstan where tourists could pitch a tent, start a fire, and leave their auto on guarded parking lots.
The local authorities chalk off an ebbing tide of tourism to Issyk-Kul in 2007 to foul weather. On the other hand, collection of taxes in the industry doubled. Specialists attribute it to transition to fixed tax rates. Resorts and whatever else pay taxes whose size is determined by quality of services offered, available rooms, and prices there. According to Nurmat Shambetov, Chief of the State Tax Inspectorate of the Issyk-Kul district, over 75 million soms worth of taxes (more than $2 million) were collected in the district over the first eight months of 2007 - against 38 million soms collected in the same period of 2006. The district authorities collected 54 million soms worth of taxes last season and plan to collect 105 million soms this time.
Anonymous source in the district administration admits, however, that sum total could be several times higher. "Practically all spas and resorts belong to officials who couldn't care less about tax structures. Trust them to conceal their actual income and evade taxation," the source said. "As for the private owners of small resorts or whatever, they never fail to grease a tax inspector's palm and thus get off the hook..."
Meken Danijarov, specialist of what used to be the Directorate of Travel of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Travel (the structure was renamed), used to say so too, last year. "Population of the Issyk-Kul district tends to hide its income," he told 24.kg news agency. As for tax structures, they just cannot cope with the actual bulk of travel to the area. "Sure, lots of people come to spend but 2-3 days here," Shambetov shrugged. "Practically every local is happy to offer them lodging. We cannot keep track of them all because we only have 30 inspectors on staff."
In other words, officials in Bishkek exaggerate to show what good job they have been doing and local officials underestimate so as to transact as little as possible to the central government.
"Inadequate level of services is a thing of the past now," Mamashov told Regnum news agency earlier this year. "An emphasis is now made on quality of services, not on the quantity of tourists. Moreover, some resorts lack sewage disposal plants, and that poses a threat to the Issyk-Kul ecology. We brought the matter up this year." By the way, the authorities had threatened to close over a dozen spas and resorts on the Issyk-Kul shores precisely for the lack of sewage disposal plants before the beginning of the travel season but not one of them was actually closed.
According to Mamashov, approximately 70% of tourists in the Issyk-Kul district are Kazakhs and 20% are Russians. Travel to Kyrgyzstan from Russia doubled over the last two years because Kyrgyzstan began participating in international exhibitions, the official said. As a matter of fact, the actual state of affairs is somewhat different. Tourists from Moscow told Ferghana.Ru that the level of services was a disappointment. "We'd have been better off in Turkey with this kind of money," one tourist by name of Vladimir said. "Over here, they serve us unwashed cutlery. We came here in the hope to be able to fish some, but there is no fish here..."
Would-be fishers have to be content with what fish is served in canteens or sold at local bazaars. Prices there, however, are something else. Trout goes at over $20 a kilogram. Tourists frequently complain of the lack of public conveniences - and of appalling conditions inside of what public conveniences do exist.
Administration of the Cholpotan municipal fair in the meantime came up with the idea that may send every tourist packing. PA system there regularly advises everyone to beware pick-pockets. Judging by the data compiled by the local police, crimes committed in summer (tourist season) account for more than 50% of the annual crime rate. Frequency of traffic incidents (with and without foreign tourists) increases as well.
As for prices, a day in The Aurora (the most expensive resort) costs $120, a day in other resorts and spas $40 and more. Quality of service, however, leaves much to be desired. Resorts owned by Kazakh businessmen charge $1,000 a day and more, but they are always booked.
Income without investments?
According to Mamashov, the state spends only 2 million soms (about $55,000) a year on development of the travel industry. He made a formal complaint to the Jogorku Kenesh or national parliament last year and asked for better funding. Lawmaker Davran Sabirov agreed that "the travel industry deserves better than that." "Relying on a single agency is wrong. All state structures should contribute to solution of the problems the national travel industry is facing," he said.
Personnel training for the travel industry is another headache. Local colleges and universities are but making the first steps in this sphere. Twenty specialists were trained at spas and hotels in Turkey last year.
The exhibitions official Bishkek is taking all this pride in mean little in the age of the global Internet. There are practically no web site where Net-surfers could obtain information on travel infrastructure of Kyrgyzstan, and what web sites do exist are not particularly attractive. Any search immediately comes up with negative reports like "Western tourists fear to come to Kyrgyzstan" or "Situation in Kyrgyzstan: southern part of the country cut off". Maps or guides are not available even in the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
The locals catering to tourists in the meantime claim that the authorities themselves should have known better. "The authorities recall that we exist only in summer," a woman said. "I sleep outdoors all summer long because all rooms are rented. What has the state done to help me now that it wants me to pay taxes?" The locals and low-level officials refer to "the big brass that have bought all resorts and pay no taxes." According to different estimates, a local family catering to tourists makes 200,000-300,000 soms ($5,000-8,000) a season, barely enough to last it to the next season.
* * *
All speculations over tourism in Kyrgyzstan are inevitably centered around Lake Issyk-Kul. In the meantime, the southern part of the country (one the Great Silky Way once ran across) has a lot of attractions too. Tourist season there last seven months, a distinct advantage over Issyk-Kul where it lasts three months only. In any case, tourists there encounter similar problems even in major cities of the region (Osh and Jalalabad) to say nothing of townships and villages.
Whenever the Kyrgyz authorities recall the southern part of the country these days, all references usually come down to the complaints against the lack of money for development of the travel industry. The have locals stopped waiting for the government to do something and act on their own. They learn to make money... and hide their income from the state.