In spite of its historical significance, Central Asia is a region poorly understood beyond its more recent past, having been caught in the crosshairs of Western and Russian rivalry, and subsequently absorbed into the Soviet bloc. While many of these countries continue to be ruled under an iron fist, they have also made significant progress in recent years, and against the expectation of outside observers—though regrettably hampered by the COVID crisis. What is the situation in the region now, what are their priorities for development, and why is it being touted as an up-and-coming destination for adventure travel?
SDGs Japan Portal’s Lucinda Cowing spoke to Sophie Ibbotson, Uzbekistan’s Tourism Ambassador to the UK and a consultant for the World Bank in Tajikistan. Sophie is also founder of international consultancy Maximum Exposure Ltd., and has written a number of Bradt Travel Guides to the countries of Central Asia.
Having studied Hindi and Urdu at Cambridge, how did you end up in Kyrgyzstan?
I always thought I was going to be a South Asia specialist. My family has links to both India and Sri Lanka: my mum grew up there and my grandmother was married to a tea planter in Ceylon. I always knew I wanted to work abroad, and to use languages to get there. I thought, I’ll study Hindi and Urdu, because that will take me more interesting places, rather than carrying on with French and German at school. I did my degree and spent a year studying in India. Then, when I graduated, I started making a documentary about tea in India and along the Silk Road.
I remember that well from the time we’d met at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs over a decade ago—didn’t you encounter some bureaucratic problems along the way?
We couldn’t finish the documentary because we couldn’t get filming permissions for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which were right in the middle of the route. Although it wouldn’t be a problem in Uzbekistan now, 12 years ago the approach to media, including foreign media, was very different. So we arrived in Kyrgyzstan because of these bureaucratic problems, a lot later than planned, and the snow had already come. The original plan was to drive through, but that wasn’t going to happen. We were driving auto rickshaws and this looked utterly ridiculous, particularly in the snow, so one of Bishkek’s newspapers ran a front-page story about these crazy foreigners. We’d done an interview for this journalist about the importance of intercultural communication, the fact that people don’t know anything about Kyrgyzstan, that we would share stories from the country. The tourism minister had picked up this newspaper, dispatching his Permanent Secretary to our hotel to find us who said, why don’t you come and work for us, and help us promote Kyrgyzstan? And that was my first real introduction to Central Asia. That was 2008. I stayed in Kyrgyzstan on and off for four years, consulting for the government and for private companies, but I also started writing for Bradt Guides, the UK travel publisher, who asked me to update the guidebooks to Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, which meant I got to travel all over those countries. Later they commissioned me to write the guidebooks to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. So I got to expand my interest in terms of research and travel writing at that stage. I started moving into tourism development but also tourism promotion, because I could see what needed to be done, and because there was also great, unrecognised potential.
What are the misconceptions that people have about Central Asia?
I think the biggest misconception is that all the Central Asian republics are the same, when actually there is a huge difference in geography, wealth, governance, culture and in language. The experience of somebody living in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, is unrecognizably different from somebody who lives in the Pamir, in southern Tajikistan. Not all countries have oil and gas wealth: Kazakhstan has got a lot, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have some. But Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are incredibly poor countries. They have some mineral resources, but not that are easily extractable, therefore they are very dependent on remittances from workers in Kazakhstan, in Russia. And that’s one of the reasons they’ve been so badly affected by the COVID downturn. Whereas in previous years sometimes as much as 40% of GDP came from remittances, people are now out of work, they’re not sending back money, and in some cases have returned home. Unemployment has gone through the roof. The economic impact of COVID there far outweighs the public health impact.
What were these countries’ development priorities up until the pandemic? Are there are any policies that have been placed on the backfoot as a result?
Education has stayed at the top of the agenda. All of these countries have a very large young population, and they are aware that they need to provide a good basic education, but also opportunities for vocational training and higher education. And unless they provide that, they have a ticking time bomb, whereby young people will end up with no jobs and nothing to do. So the number one priority has to be making sure that the education is fit for purpose, and that includes everything from building schools, updating the curriculum, to making sure there is availability of IT infrastructure and internet access.
Among the things that has slid backwards in the past year is gender equality, which had been cautiously improving. The rights of women are way down the list of what people think are important, partly because of the high unemployment and rising poverty. There has also been some backsliding of democracy and rule of law, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, where they had another coup in the autumn. There had been a lot of vote buying in the election, and they decided the way to deal with that was just to ignore the result completely and have another one. The new president has no real mandate from the people, but he has the mafia backing. It’s sad, because rightly or wrongly, a lot of people did think that Kyrgyzstan was the bastion of democracy in the region—I personally think it was being compared to a very low baseline—and I don’t think it will be a priority in Kyrgyzstan in the short term, nor for other governments, to focus on that kind of reform. They have more urgent issues, which are, to put it bluntly, making sure people don’t starve this winter.
Turkmenistan is the elephant in the room because the government is completely isolationist. It’s still publicly stating that it does not have COVID cases in the country, which is ridiculous, but because they won’t let anybody in there and don’t engage, we really don’t know what the situation is.
Are there Central Asian states whose governance has become more democratic or open in recent times?
Tajikistan has had the same president since the early 90s and he’s not going anywhere unless he decides to step down. His son is probably being groomed to take over. In Kazakhstan, the first president, Nazarbayev, handed over power to his chosen successor two years ago. So it wasn’t a democratic transfer of power, but it was at least a peaceful one, which is a contrast to what’s happened in Kyrgyzstan, where they’ve had three revolutions in 15 years. Turkmenistan is a dictatorship, but it was a peaceful power transfer from the previous dictator when he died.
Uzbekistan is an interesting case because Karimov, the first president who was another dictator, died in 2016 and there was a lot of scepticism when his successor Mirziyoyev came to power, that he was just going to represent continuity with the past. But actually, he has been a reformer. I was on a call this morning with Central Asia experts from the UK, and several people were saying that actually, he’s exceeded our expectations. The majority of this reform has been economic, but there has been some interest in political reform as well. And hopefully over the next few years, that will expand. Also in terms of labour reform, there is a New Labour code which has yet to be fully implemented, but will build on the already positive changes regarding abolition of forced labour. The ILO [International Labour Organization] has been working with the government on this and monitoring progress. There’s still more to do, but the government has been quite proactive about it. There needs to be reform to the judiciary. There needs to be more competitiveness in elections, though the actual processes under which elections take place has definitely improved. More candidates need to be able to stand, for it to be easier for opposition parties to form and field candidates and to promote their agendas. I think that will come, but obviously at a time of crisis like with COVID, things that were not considered essential but nice to have, or that were considered important but you only have so much capacity to deliver, are no longer the focus.
You are working with the World Bank in Tajikistan. I understand it is quite a resource-poor country, so what is the basis of their economy and what areas are they trying to develop?
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Tajikistan was the poorest state of all of the former Soviet republics. I think that remains the case to the present day. The infrastructure was never there, other than to serve the Soviet manufacturing machine. Industries like mining were subsidised by Moscow to make them viable, and with those subsidies gone, much of it collapsed.
Hydropower is one big development. There are some very large dams and obviously there are environmental concerns about that. There are also concerns that because of climate change, the glaciers are shrinking and the dams do not have the volume of water that they need. And this is a big problem for the availability of domestic electricity, but also will have an impact on Tajikistan’s ability to export electricity to neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan and therefore generate revenue from it. There is still some mining on a small scale, but Tajikistan does have gold and rare earth metals, and there is some metal processing in the western part of the country. Agriculture is predominantly subsistence, because the ground isn’t terribly fertile; a lot of the country is mountainous and high-altitude desert, so food security is an issue. But agriculture does still employ a fair portion of the population, particularly women. A lot of the migrant workers come from these rural communities, so it is the elderly, women or children who are farming while they are working abroad.
Tourism is something that Tajikistan is really keen to develop as an adventure tourism destination. It’s taken a big step back because of COVID. But the World Bank project that I’m working on is focused specifically on tourism and agribusiness because they reckon that these things could add quality employment opportunities, but also increase average earnings and give a boost to the economy, particularly in the poorer areas of the country like Khatlon in the south and the eastern Pamir region near the border with Afghanistan and China.
Speaking of tourism, tell us about Uzbekistan as a place to visit. Why should people go there?
The main reason to visit Uzbekistan is that it was the heart of the Silk Road, at the centre of the routes between China and Europe. The beautiful tiled mosques and madrasas, the palaces, the desert fortresses—you will find examples of all of these in Uzbekistan. Because of its location and Silk Road history, it’s an incredibly multicultural and multi-ethnic society. I was thinking about the sheer number of languages spoken in Uzbekistan, and it runs into dozens. It’s not that they are languages spoken by foreigners; it’s that there are so many different ethnic groups there. Yes, they might speak Uzbek or Russian for ease of inter-ethnic communication, but they still speak Dungan or Karakalpak, Kazakh or Tartar at home. And all of these communities, historically have played a role in Uzbekistan’s cultural development, in its food, religious practices, and so on. So it’s fascinating to see that diversity. There is archaeological evidence of Zoroastrian and Hindu temples in Uzbekistan, as well as lot of Buddhist sites, which is something that people don’t necessarily expect because Uzbekistan has been a predominantly Muslim country since the eighth century.
While the Silk Road aspect is Uzbekistan’s biggest selling point, it’s certainly not the only aspect of tourism there. Adventure tourism is developing. You’ve got desert and mountainous ecosystems, and there is interesting wildlife, from Saiga antelope in Karakalpakstan, to snow leopards in the Gissar Reserve. There are lots of opportunities to be outdoors, whether hiking, biking, picnicking or staying in a yurt.
In the last couple of years, Uzbekistan also started developing its winter sports, which comes as a surprise as everyone assumes it’s a hot desert state. But the mountains in Tashkent Region in particular have some of the best powder snow in the world. Apparently, it even rivals Japan! I was at a big new ski resort which opened in winter 2019, called Amirsoy. They have invited a resort management company from Andorra to run it, and it’s been done to the highest international standards, which is real first for the region. There is some skiing in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan as well, but the quality of the infrastructure and customer service has never matched the quality of the snow. Whereas in Amirsoy, they’re trying to bring in international best practice, including environmental best practice, to make it a world class resort.
So Uzbekistan is really taking tourism seriously! Why is that and do they expect tourism to play a role in the post COVID recovery process?
Diversification of the economy is really important in Uzbekistan. To be honest, tourism is never going to be the biggest sector of the economy in Central Asia, particularly for those countries which have oil and gas or manufacturing capacity. But it could make up 20 or 30% of GDP. It’s a very valuable way of getting hard currency, and of strengthening cultural and diplomatic ties with other countries as well. And you see that, for example, between Uzbekistan and the UK. Actually, the volume of tourists who come from the UK is quite low, but they are seen as prestigious guests: British tourists set travel trends, which other markets then copy. So what they want is for the British to come to Uzbekistan to help them improve the quality and design of products, because if it’s good enough for them, then they know that high-end tourists coming from other places such as the US of the Gulf will also enjoy them.
In 2019 The Economist picked Uzbekistan as their “country of the year.” This award is given to the country that has most improved. Obviously, that does favour countries which are starting from a low point, but it means they recognised that Uzbekistan was pushing forward in all sorts of ways, and I think Uzbekistan was really proud of that. It’s these kinds of accolades that encourage them to keep up momentum. It’s really disheartening now that COVID has hit. In the tourism sector, there are many people working so hard and investing everything they’ve got into creating new products and services to really welcome people to the country. And then to realize that you’re actually going three or four years backwards because of something that’s completely out of your control is really depressing. It will come back, but we’re not going to really see a full recovery until 2023, and even that is dependent on having widespread access to vaccines.
That does sound tough. On a brighter note, what is your next engagement as Tourism Ambassador for Uzbekistan?
I am chairing an event hosted by the Uzbekistan Embassy in London in February. It’s a one-day celebration of Ali-Shir Nava’i, who is the National poet of Uzbekistan, so I’m looking forward to it. There will be music, poetry and history—a bit less depressing than talking about COVID!