Approximately 35,000 tourists are expected to visit Astana every day during EXPO 2017. In an interview, Astana Convention Bureau Director Saniyar Aitekenov spoke about the city’s readiness to cater to them.
Tell us about your company: when and why was it created, what has already been achieved?
It’s a unit of the city Akim’s (Mayor’s) office that was entrusted with functions of tourism management. It has operated since November 2015. At the headquarters we are responsible for preparing the city for the expo led by the akim of Astana; we play the role of an executive agency for implementing the action plan.
Out of 245 scheduled measures, we have just over 140 left to implement. All of them are functionally connected into a single system; there are people in charge of each area of action. The staff meets once a week in full force and each of the five deputy akims reports on the work carried out in their field. People are put in charge of transport, volunteer network, medicine, construction and safety. A “road map of execution” has been designed for each area – from laying asphalt and installation of curbs to accommodation of tourists.
In just a few months, a huge number of visitors are expected in Astana. What are you ready to offer the tourists visiting the country for the first time?
As a rule, people need information upon arrival. To help them find their way in the city, we created round-the-clock information desks – at the airport, at the railway station, in the Khan Shatyr shopping mall. We are planning to increase their number to six.
Information desks have already proved to be of demand. For example, at the train station tourists are often interested in transport routes, means of getting to their destination, transport transfer schemes. At the airport, accommodation issues are added to this. Sometimes, the hosts forget to meet their guests at the airport or the tourist doesn’t manage to book a hotel in time. In such cases, our managers are at their service. They will not only help with accommodations, call a taxi and, if necessary, deliver them to their destination, but can also take them sightseeing.
Did you provide special training for these people?
We tried to attract young people, students for whom it’s a good language practice and experience as guides. I would like to say that these guys are doing a wonderful job; they are united by team spirit and are making progress largely due to their enthusiasm and responsibility. They can tell a lot about the city.
You said that guests will be provided with accommodation assistance, but we are talking about thousands of visitors.
Indeed, according to the registration dossier of the Astana EXPO 2017 National Company, 2.3 million tourists, of which 15-20 percent are foreigners, are expected to visit Astana. This is a very large number. It makes an average of 32,000-35,000 tourists in the city on a daily basis. The issue of accommodations has largely been resolved. Currently there are 184 hotels in Astana, which makes 12,500 beds. By the time of EXPO 2017, 23 more accommodations facilities with 2,829 places are to be commissioned.
Moreover, the city has 25 hostels providing 664 places. By May, 15,975 places are to be prepared in them. In case of a lack of space, we are planning to use university and college dormitories. Plus, 18,000 apartments are available for rent, including about 3,000 apartments for daily rent. That makes three-four beds per 10,000 people on average. To date, 10 college dormitories for 1,710 people and university dormitories for 8,500 people have been prepared.
Still, how is the plan going to be implemented?
Here, I would like to talk about the single simulation system that will allow us to observe the overall picture and maintain the normal functioning of the city. The capital is divided into three districts and all the sites that will be used for accommodations are combined into a single system. Through computer modelling we can simulate any situation, to say, “try” it to the city, to the number of tourists, according to their hotel accommodations and arrange the whole day in 15-minute intervals.
If a traffic jam, a big crowd or other difficulties arise, the system immediately notifies us of problem areas, labelling them in red. It doesn’t only “see” the problem, it also suggests ways to solve it. For example, somewhere mobile canteens or public toilets need to be added, in some places the road needs to be blocked or public transport has to be re-routed.
Let’s imagine the following: one day in the early morning people start gathering at the expo site. By 10 a.m., a person spends over three minutes in a queue and this can cause crowdedness. The system offers to open two additional entrances. By 11 a.m. the tourist flow becomes more intense; a person stands in line for more than seven minutes and there is already a need to involve volunteers. This is how the situation is simulated for every minute. This system has already proved itself in the biggest events around the world. I think that in our case everything will be fine as well.
It is clear that the success of an international event depends on the efforts and coordinated actions of partners and associates. Tell us about Astana’s Recommended by EXPO 2017 partnership programme: what is it aimed at and who are you cooperating with?
We developed and launched Recommended by EXPO 2017 in partnership with a national company. We made a list of restaurants and hotels and developed requirements for them. Many hotels call themselves five-star, but in reality they do not meet the requirements for this level.
The programme involves a special commission which includes the employees of the Astana EXPO National Company, Akimat (mayor’s office) officials and representatives for emergencies and sanitary inspections. The commission examines the sites from the list, gives its assessment and defines which one of them belongs to which category. If a hotel or a restaurant has a Recommended by EXPO 2017 quality mark, it means that a tourist will be provided with high level service there.
About 100 hotels have already become partners of our programme. They are all included in the materials provided by our information desks. We want this city-business partnership programme to work on a permanent basis.
How many events are planned as part of the expo? Is there an event calendar?
The calendar, indeed, has already been formed; it is now at the stage of approval. Three thousand events are scheduled over the entire period of the expo. About 50 of them are major forums and summits. All the events are scheduled for each day. In June alone, there will be 488 events. For example, the official opening ceremony of the international specialised exhibition is scheduled for June 9. The same day, we will host a summit of the heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member states. The first China industrial exhibition will open June 10 and July 1, Astana is to host 29 sports and cultural events. I think that soon the whole calendar will be available in the mobile application and in the handouts.
What are your bureau’s priorities for today?
The main task for us all is to make sure that all the participants and guests of the exhibition, both residents and foreigners, are satisfied. A lot is being done for this. There’s an orientation system for pedestrians which will help you not to get lost even if it’s your first time in the city. There are about 100 information stands and 140 signposts that indicate the final destination; they are all written in English, Kazakh and Russian languages.
The Friendly Taxi project has been launched for the convenience of tourists and reduction of the language barrier. The system is a communications centre between foreign guests of Astana city and taxi drivers. Since the launch of the project, about 300 vehicles have been connected to the system. In addition, Friendly Police, a state car fleet and, of course, the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) will be launched in the capital by 2020. Moreover, we plan to train 100 tour guides and about 1,500 volunteers. In short, we are living through a historic moment and three months of hard work are awaiting us. Let people visit us and learn about our country. Today, by the way, 260,000 tourists visit Kazakhstan and by 2020 the number is sure to rise to one million.
We have everything necessary for tourism development – unique nature, favourable geographical position and, most importantly, friendly, hospitable people open to the world and new knowledge. Welcome to Kazakhstan!