Dainar rarely smiles and doesn’t seem to notice us much as we ride behind him through the endless grasslands. We’re in Kyrgyzstan, and excited to start a three-day horse trek into the mountains. Dainar is our guide – a very serious and quiet guide. He is twelve.
We have booked the tour through Community Based Tourism (CBT), a network of tourism agencies that claim to offer ‘sustainable’ excursions throughout Central Asia. A relatively new concept, community based ecotourism promises tourists unique experiences that have the added benefit of generating income for the rural population and preserving the natural environment. According to the brochures, at least, it is a win-win-win situation. Now, Dainar is rearranging our backpacks on his horse, again. They keep sliding down. So this is eco-tourism up-close.
Kyrgyzstan likes to portray itself as the ideal eco-tourism destination – with good reason. 95% percent of the country consists of unspoiled mountain scenery, and the country has a well-developed network of Community Based Tourism agencies. Coupled with a relatively stable political environment, these factors make Kyrgyzstan very attractive to the adventurous eco-tourist, and eco-tourism has become part of the Kyrgyz national brand. Indeed, this “enormous tourism potential” is important enough to have been the main topic of the Kyrgyz Ambassador’s presentation at the Berlin International Economic Congress 2013 in Berlin.
This presentation, in fact, was what brought Kyrgyzstan to my attention, and how the country made it into my travel route. Now that the pictures and travel kit are safely stored away, one question keeps returning: is eco-tourism in Kyrgyzstan working? How would we know whether it is working?
For one thing, scale is an issue. Eco-tourism expert, David A. Fennell writes: “I was told as a graduate student that if ecotourism were to become successful, it would have undermined everything that it had initially set out to accomplish.” Eco-tourism is indeed growing respectably in Kyrgyzstan. The total number of tourists using CBT services rose from 718 tourists in 2000 to over 10’000 eco-tourists in 2012. Large numbers might become a problem for a business that relies on uncrowdedness and minimal negative touristic footprint.
Nir Rotem, a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researches eco-tourism in Kyrgyzstan and worries about the long-term sustainability of larger scale eco-tourism. Insufficient training in ecological maintenance and too many tourists may create an imbalance the natural environment in the long run. “I am not sure it will work – things will grow bigger and it’s not simple to keep the right balance.”
While Nir also worries about eco-tourism being turned into a “big, destructive” business, we saw in Koshkor only limited entrepreneurial zeal. Consider the organization Jailoo, through which we booked our trek. Its manager Jailoo worked for 10 years as a coordinator for CBT before she opened her own tourism office. Now she lives in Koshkor and has been running her own business for seven years and seems very pleased with herself and the world. She keeps assuring us that “all will be done very professionally”. Local handicraft products are on exhibition and for sale in one corner of the room and there are two computers with internet access. They rarely work. But then, one doesn’t come here for the internet. Jailoo’s English is good and she is happy to talk about her little company.
Stories like hers are encouraging but also highlight the limits of eco-tourism in Kyrgyzstan at the moment. Jailoo offers the exact same tours as CBT and Shepard’s Life and in a good summer she will have 2-3 people every other week to do such a trip. This seems to be enough to keep the organization going. She does not have ambitious plans for her own company and cooperates with CBT on many issues. Indeed she displays the same patient attitude towards tourists turning up that she has with the semi-functional computers. On a good day the internet works. In a good summer more tourists come. Still, she was intrigued and happy by the idea of being featured in an article.
If eco-tourism has to remain rather small to “work” the tourism sector will continue to partially involve many people but most often not provide them with stable or permanent employment. Often children, like Dainar, are enlisted to take care of the tourists. The parents remain down in the village to pursue other occupations. We could observe this first-hand. While there were a few adults involved, the principal agents seemed to be all children or teenagers. While most children learn English at school, communication is limited and true involvement with community life remains difficult. So one of the key goals of community based tourism – being based in a community – was, at least for us, not completely achieved.
The Executive Director of CBT Kyrgyzstan, Asylbek Rajiev, also identifies building sustainable communities as a key challenge linked to sustainable tourism. Ideally, eco-tourism promotes ecological consciousness within a community. This awareness would lead not just to sustainable tourism but sustainable growth for the whole country.
On a long and bumpy taxi-ride to Lake Issykkul we meet Batilov, who reassures us that such an awareness is spreading among the Kyrgyz people. With an engineering degree from a German University, work experience in Russia and two IT companies, he clearly belongs to the country’s elite. He talks for hours about the need for natural conservation and the dangers of mass-tourism and rapid resource extraction. What Batilov wants most of all is for “his children to grow up in touch with nature.”