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