ASTANA – Tarik Volkan Oskay, director general of Sembol Investment and Development came to Kazakhstan for the first time at the end of 1996 to meet the family of his then girlfriend, now wife. After that, a job opportunity came up, and in June 2005 he arrived to work for Rixos President Hotel. Since then, he has been working and living in Astana.The Astana Times talked to Mr Volkan to find out his opinion on his second motherland and discuss how expats perceive Kazakhstan and its future.
Did you notice any changes here since you first arrived?
I note real changes happening in social life and in commerce. This doesn’t only apply to places like Almaty or Astana. I say this as a person who knows the regions well from first-hand experience. With my job, I periodically visit rural areas. I have travelled before as well, with my wife’s father, just out of curiosity. Because of that, I know there are serious changes in the regions apart from Astana, Almaty, Aktau, and Atyrau.
Kazakhstan has this sort of advantage with approximately 16-17 million people: the processes that happen at the top level always have an impact on the ground very quickly. In my country, that isn’t the case, things usually take time. I think this can be seen from the outside as well.
What about negative changes?
Of course, there are going to be imperfections, they will never end. As long as people live they will always have flaws. Firstly, I think people have to think about employment in a different way, because Kazakhstan doesn’t only need oilmen and miners and financiers. A country needs everything. So if people change their mindset to accept that, and not just seek riches quickly. You have to look at the situation differently to see what the country needs and realise that people are required in every sphere.
In the work that I do, hospitality, a lot of things can happen. I am a person who believes that Kazakhstan has many more wonderful opportunities that are not related to oil and raw materials. There is a huge potential in tourism.
Not many people may believe me but in my country, we didn’t have a tourism industry 25 years ago. Now we can talk about approximately 30 billion dollars. And this is a country that’s four times smaller than Kazakhstan. Toursim isn’t only the sea, sand and sun. In Kazakhstan, there is a serious culture of hunting tourism.
It can also use the relationship with its Turkic neighbours. We have, for example, the Mevlana museum, a visit to which is said to be equal to a mini hajj. You could say the same thing here with Khodzha Akhmet Yassawi mausoleum. These are still not active but closed destinations that can be expanded, or say, be made more attractive, preserved. Hotels on route and related services could be developed. Not only that but this list also includes the cradle of Turkic civilization, the Altai mountains, and I could list many more attractions.
And there are things being done already, and I try to keep up with them. You have to look at it through that perspective. Let’s not call it negatives, but with efforts things can improve. And you can’t change the image of Kazakhstan to what it wants to be by just selling oil or mineral resources. You have to do these kinds of things so that the image of the country is seen from different perspectives, and a major part of this perception is shaped through tourism.
Is there any advice or comments to our readers?
Actually, I can give quite a lot of recommendations regarding Kazakhstan. I’ll speak from my experience: this is a very positive country, at least that’s how I feel about it. Maybe not everybody does this, but when I travel abroad I try to sense the air, the water and the people of a place their openness to you. In those terms Astana can be perceived as perhaps the most competitive city. However, I live here and know it. There is still a very positive atmosphere and I hope it never ends, because it is something unique. You cannot find this in any other place in the world. This is a cultural, historical moment. Foreigners don’t usually stay here for long, or at least, people like me who stay for 8-10 years, as they say, are a rare example. I hope they really get into the taste of things and when they return, they can enjoy the memories of the time spent here.
This is the modern world and one can travel a few hundred years within 100-200 kilometers. Because there aren’t many people, a lot of things seem to be just hanging in the air. Especially if you go to the south you can feel it. 50-100 kilometers from where people live, you can feel a different environment and I think they have to enjoy it. I would recommend it at least.
Other than that, there is something I notice all the time: Kazakh culture has stayed very raw, basic and not far from its roots. They have to live this, because in a lot of countries in the world there isn’t a dialogue between a people and their forefathers. There is, for example, the beshparmak ceremony and I am sure that a thousand years earlier it was the same. Maybe they didn’t use porcelain dishes but in some way the Kazakhs are incredibly bound to traditions. And even in Turkey, which considers itself very cultural country, you can’t live the culture this close. I just think foreigners have to entrust themselves to Kazakh friends and that will be enough. I am sure this is something they can see and feel in every family and home here.
Some people can say it’s cold here. Well, it’s cold in Canada, but you cannot find in Canada what you can find here. I’m talking about human connections, and you have to relish it. I think there are few things better than having a Kazakh friend. I’m not saying that because I live here and want to make somebody like me, it is really like that. I have been to other places, lived in other countries but here I do not feel like an alien. I am not made to feel like a foreigner. My friends who surround me simply do not let me feel it. To be abroad and to feel at home, for me this is one of the few countries in the world. Maybe a German or an Italian may not feel this way. I can recommend making friends among Kazakh, and I am sure they will arrange for everything. They provide me this comfort and ease, and I therefore I feel happy here.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I think Kazakhstan, Astana especially, being one of the youngest capitals in the world, must be one of the most creative as well. And its work to attract and inform foreigners carries great importance. At the Rixos President Hotel, the first place where I worked here, we tried to support these types of works. It is the message that the country wants to convey, it is what the capital wants to say. And it is important because you have a great guide in Nursultan Nazarbayev with a great vision stretching into the future. When I first came to Astana in 1999, I couldn’t comprehend it. “Why?” I asked myself, “why” was the capital moved here? I thought about it for a long time but now I understand. If you want to give a message to the world, you had to do this type of thing. And it’s being done. So really, it must be appreciated.
Whenever I show my friends who haven’t been to Astana photos of the city they are amazed, asking “Is it really like this?” They then go online, and I bring them more books. They are surprised and want to visit.