When Global Tourism Returns, the Silk Road Awaits

Central Asia has the opportunity to create a sustainable, safe, easily accessible, and well-known tourism destination that provides a variety of year-round, quality experiences.

Ramola Naik Singru

The Silk Road brings to mind places steeped in tradition, culture, and trade in the most precious commodities of ancient times: silk, spices, and gems. Today, the region once traversed by this ancient route from the People’s Republic of China to Western Europe is again a vibrant destination, attracting rising numbers of tourists before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, Georgia welcomed a record 7.7 million international visitors, many of whom came in search of the country’s stunning gorges and exquisite cuisine. Uzbekistan, with its architectural treasures, had a record 6.7 million international arrivals. In October 2019, Lonely Planet crowned Central Asia as the top region to visit globally.

Carmen Garcia Perez

Although the pandemic has dealt a big blow to this momentum, Central Asia is well-positioned to benefit from longer-term tourism trends once global travel recovers. Among them is a rising demand for sustainable tourism and authentic, experiential travel. To capitalize on this, countries in the region need to work together to upgrade their transportation, make cross-border travel easier, expand and improve their tourism services, and add to their marketing and management skills.

From the stunning wilderness of the Gobi Desert to mountain trails in the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan or historic landmarks in Azerbaijan, the region promises to be an ideal destination for uncrowded travel after the pandemic. The Silk Road itself is one of the world’s most valuable tourism assets. The route that once carried goods, ideas, and prosperity between great civilizations in the East and West is today dotted with hundreds of historic cities and monuments, diverse cultures, distinct cuisines, and local traditions.

So as the world begins to reopen, what could hold back tourism development in Central Asia?

Poor transportation and connectivity make travel difficult. This is made worse by cumbersome border arrangements and visa requirements. Meanwhile, the quality of tourism services, such as accommodation, is inconsistent.

It is vital for countries in the region to offer affordable and more frequent flights. They also need to upgrade roads and railroads, make visa requirements more uniform, and make it easier to travel between countries. The countries should work together to develop tourism and telecommunications services while ensuring basic services such as a reliable water supply.

Small and medium-sized businesses offer most tourism services in the region, but often lack resources. Government agencies and the private sector need to collaborate to help these businesses meet international quality standards. Incentives should be in place for those that raise their standards, and it should also be easier to register a new tourism business. These steps are crucial to making the region more competitive as a global destination that can attract high-spending visitors.

Countries in the region also need to add to their skills. Distance learning can help them learn the latest about tourism policy and destination management, as well as earn internationally recognized certifications. Businesses also need to get better at marketing and managing tourism experiences.

Better marketing can help the region become known for high-quality facilities and standards, ease of travel, and a safe and secure environment. While Central Asian countries don’t have big budgets to market tourism, they can benefit from joint promotion and cost-sharing. They should target the most promising tourism segments to help them rebuild confidence after COVID-19.

Finally, the countries can collaborate to improve how they gather and analyze tourism data. They can establish common methodologies for gathering statistics, strengthen their capacity to survey customers, and assess visitors’ spending patterns. Establishing UN World Tourism Organization observatories in Central Asian countries will help monitor the environmental and social impact of tourism at each destination.

By working together, countries of the region can solve these challenges while creating a larger tourism market that offers a wide variety of experiences. In December 2020, the 11 members of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program–a partnership to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation–endorsed a long-term strategy to improve tourism. Their top priorities are connectivity, infrastructure, and services.

Joint marketing activities have already started. Countries have established a common brand, “Visit Silk Road,” and are working together to develop a web portal that will make it easy to book package tours. They are also considering a “Silk Road Pass” or “Silk Air Pass” that could offer tourists special travel fares and discounts.

Central Asia has the opportunity to create a sustainable, safe, easily accessible, and well-known tourism destination that provides a variety of year-round, quality experiences. The CAREC Tourism Strategy can improve living standards and accelerate inclusive growth. And the Silk Road can once again become the region’s path to prosperity.

The authors are Ramola Naik Singru, Senior Urban Development Specialist; Carmen Garcia Perez, Regional Cooperation Specialist, Asian Development Bank

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