In honour of World Tourism day, and 2017 being the year of sustainable tourism, it seemed to be the perfect time to write about an impeding problem currently seen in many places around the world, but which hit home the hardest while I was travelling through Kyrgyzstan. A slow degradation of local culture in spite of increased income from tourism.
There is not much variety for tourists in Kyrgyzstan. The country is absolutely land-locked in between the two giants Kazakhstan and China and it is mostly barren, mountainous highland. A bliss for the adventurous trekking enthusiast or mountaineer, but not for the luxury traveler or culture aficionado (although there are a few very unique sites such as Tash-Rabat). Now that people are associating the suffix ‘-stan’ less and less with ‘terrorism’ (thank god!) and most countries in Central-Asia are slowly but surely opening up to the world, Kyrgyzstan is at the forefront of a touristic explosion. And rightly so.
From Lenin Peak in the South to the renown Song-Kol lake and the never-ending steppe landscapes, Kyrgyzstan holds absolute unrivaled natural beauty. Many families still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle because the soil does not allow for intensive agriculture (only 3% of the available land is actually arable) and because the job market is not big enough in the main cities of Bishkek and Osh to move there en masse. As a result, the tourism industry thought it to be a splendid idea to bring their lifestyle back into the spotlight: Arrange an extra yurt, let travellers sleep in there for the night and experience the local culture and pay the families for it. An excellent solution, given the poverty some nomads still live in and given the near-absence of hotels outside of the main cities. I myself travelled through Kyrgyzstan this way, which made for some life-long friendships, unique experiences and a lot of heart-warming evenings shared together with other travellers as well as local families.
However, it also unwrapped a rather awkward and urgent situation, one that almost resembles the road to what Thailand and Bali have become since the dawn of the party tourist in South-East Asia. Only – for Kyrgyzstan it could mean the beginning of the end of a successful tourism industry.
Firstly, given that Kyrgyzstan is rapidly growing as a tourist destination (without the necessary infrastructure, often case), very little attention is currently given to taking care of the environment, even though that is the single most important source of tourism in the country. In more popular trekking areas (such as Altyn Arashan, Song-Kul area and Lenin Peak base camp), trash is being left around everywhere by both tourists and guides, often reluctant to give the right example. I saw them throwing plastic away in nature or burning it multiple times and it happened with metal cans, rubber and glass as well, sometimes leaving a stench behind on even the most serene and peaceful camping sites.
I was among a small group of tourists attempting to pick up paper wrappings to throw them away later, but it was often seen as a strange thing to do. In Altyn Arashan and the area around the Ala-Kol lake and Telety Pass, smaller camping places sometimes host parties and offer alcohol and some western foods (note that this is all in the middle of a national park, not exactly where you would head for a loud party). Without prior judgement about liking a good night out, in this context these people are sadly also often those who do not particularly care about environment or espect for the local customs.
Additionally, all these ‘extras’ have to be carried up the mountains, which are inaccessible for any type of vehicle, by porters and guides (often underpaid and inexperienced, unless they are employed by reputable organizations such as CBT or Discover Kyrgyzstan). Not only does this practice disturbs the other tourists, those who came here for the nature, peace and quiet, it also brings the porters more at risk of injuries and accidents. Unfortunately, it was clear that these practices were put in place by local travel agencies trying to attract more people this way.
Another issue I experienced, concerns mostly the suffering of local culture under the tourist pressure. Yurt camps are common place and a very popular form of homestay-type accommodation, because the country does not allow for big hotels or luxury resorts in most places. For example, the Song-Kol lake is immensely popular during the summer months, but is completely inaccessible for 8 months per year due to icy temperatures (all the way to -40 degrees centigrade) and mountain passes that are snowed in. A hotel could simply not maintain itself there. But as a result of this ‘forced local tourism’, tourists and locals sometimes clash.
More often than not, I saw big groups of European as well as Asian tourists stealing food from households, saying: “If there is a basket with bread and a tray with candies, we can just take it all and put it in our bags, right?”, not realising that part of the Kyrgyz culture is hospitality by offering way more than your guests actually need. In other cases, some tourists refused to eat what the lady of the house prepared for them (even though, there aren’t really that many options to choose from if you are in a yurt camp 2 days walk away from the nearest accessible road).
What was even more striking, was seeing some tourists demand to sleep in the family’s yurt instead of the extra one made for guests, because it allegedly has more comfort and thus kicking the family members out.
Of course, a set of isolated examples does not make or break the case for an entire country, but given the great amount of times I saw and noted this disrespectful behaviour towards the country, its people and customs in just a few weeks time, I felt it to be too urgent to dismiss.
It does not only make for a slightly polluted hiking trail, it also influenced locals’ attitude towards tourists for the worse. To say that the Homestay owners became hostile towards tourists would be a wrong statement, because in Kyrgyz culture a guest is a guest and should always be treated with respect, regardless of the circumstances. Yet, a few small behavioural cues caught my attention: Local men in particular became suspicious of newly-arrived tourists: Not wanting to speak or, after asking them a question about their lifestyle, immediately asking why we want to know (thinking that asking is a form of ridiculing, after apparently there had been numerous clashes with Korean tourists making fun of their way of life). Once, they even hid their daughters after one of us asked her if she goes to school in a village nearby. I do not know why, but it deeply concerns me with regard to how others must have looked at her.
I first thought that I was pretty unfortunate with these experiences.
However, as I asked more people about it, I found that they had similar experiences. A local guide even said that during the last few years, he has seen a profoundly negative change in the way tourism is seen among locals, but that the extra income is absolutely necessary for development, explaining that is why people let it all happen.
The question here is now: how do we solve this? The government needs to take a few key steps when it comes to regulating tourism, with stricter guidelines regarding conservation of nature and cultural heritage. NGOs, travel agencies and activists play a key role in spreading awareness about sustainable tourism and with elections in Kyrgyzstan going on now, I feel as if tourism should be one of the main points of focus of the campaigns. A beautiful country with beautiful people and beautiful customs, it would be such a shame to let it degrade into an open-air playground for careless thrill seekers.