Kazakh Tourism Chairman Reveals Hidden Gems, Tauts Sustainable Tourism, Authenticity

ASTANA – Kazakhstan, a country where astronauts return to Earth and ancient traditions thrive in modern cities, is on the brink of a tourism renaissance as the tourism industry has momentum, said Kairat Sadvakassov, the chairman of Kazakh Tourism national company, in an interview with The Astana Times. In an insightful conversation, he shared how Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest country, is opening its doors to the world.

Assel Satubaldina and Kairat Sadvakassov during the interview. Photo credit: The Astana Times

The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world off guard, severely impacting various sectors, with tourism among the hardest hit. Kazakhstan’s tourism industry faced a staggering 75% decline in arrivals, leading to the temporary closure of many hotels, which were forced to limit their services to laundry or delivery just to stay afloat. 

However, Sadvakassov emphasized the sector’s inherent resilience, noting a remarkable recovery that saw arrivals bounce back to pre-pandemic levels by 2023.

Sadvakassov has over 20 years of experience working in the tourism industry. He has been heading the national company since December 2023. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“We have to congratulate the government on being so fast with helping the industry open up. The geopolitical things that are happening in the region helped Kazakhstan in terms of placing itself on the map as the meeting point. I guess that goes hand in hand with our overall strategy of becoming the MICE [Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions] tourism hub of Central Asia or the Eurasian continent, becoming the meeting point for sports events, political events, and different business events,” he said. 

The country has witnessed an impressive surge in tourist arrivals, surpassing figures seen before the global health crisis. This rise has been observed across both domestic and international arrivals, with certain regions even outperforming their 2019 visitor statistics.

“Domestic-wise, we grew tremendously. Never before people traveled within their own country, so it was a great discovery for our own. People finally started looking inward. I guess some of them got really surprised at how beautiful our country was,” he said. 

According to the data from the Kazakh Ministry of Tourism and Sports, in nine months in 2023, more than 5.4 million Kazakh citizens traveled within the country, which is 550,000 more than during the same period in 2022. Data shows that 834,900 foreign tourists visited the country in the same period. 

Sadvakassov outlined the growth in investments and spending on tourism infrastructure. Infrastructure improvements, including the construction and rehabilitation of roads and the addition of new hotel facilities, have been pivotal. 

“A lot of work is being done on international markets. We are trying to stir things up. After the pandemic, the competition has been huge, like never before,” he said. 

Short and long-haul markets

In terms of international arrivals, a significant highlight was the 1.7 million arrivals from Russia, a figure adjusted to account for the frequent cross-border movement facilitated by over 40 checkpoints along the world’s longest bilateral border. 

Arrivals from Uzbekistan reached 2.7 million visitors. Sadvakassov also mentioned Turkiye and China as key sources of inbound tourism. 

China, in particular, exhibited a 12-fold increase in visitors to 217,000, a surge attributed to a reciprocal visa-free regime facilitating easier travel. The reopening of China post-pandemic has unleashed pent-up demand, and Kazakhstan is poised to capitalize on this opportunity, especially as 2024 was declared Kazakhstan’s tourism year in China. 

A series of cultural and promotional events are planned, starting with a grand opening in Beijing and culminating in a closing ceremony in Almaty to showcase Kazakhstan’s tourism potential to the Chinese market.

“I hope we’ll see more tourists coming from Europe because right now, to be honest, we are still lacking tourists from those markets, basically from what we call the West,” he added.  

Efforts to attract more tourists from the Organization of Turkic States are underway, with Turkistan being spotlighted as a city of tourism. 

Hidden gems in Kazakhstan

Sadvakassov shed light on three captivating destinations within the country, the so-called hidden gems. Each of these places offers a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and modernity, promising diverse experiences for tourists.

Turkistan is the number one hidden gem, rightfully deemed a holy place in Kazakhstan. The city is rapidly emerging as a cultural hub, thanks to its state-of-the-art airport and attractions such as the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) – inscribed grand Khoja Ahmed Yasawi mausoleum and the Karavan Saray complex. This blend of ancient heritage and modern amenities positions Turkistan as a compelling destination for both cultural and leisure tourism. 

Sadvakassov announced they agreed with Uzbekistan’s local travel company to develop package tours which will include Samarkand and Turkistan. 

“The packages now will offer two countries on the same trip. Of course, the major attractions still remain in Uzbekistan. But this short extension of four to three nights to Turkistan just to make tourists visit another new country will give us a chance to grow that kind of habit,” he said. 

He noted that the Kyrgyz Republic might be added to the package with the ultimate goal of “popularizing the region as a whole.”

Another hidden gem is Katon Karagay, located in eastern Kazakhstan, which offers an escape to one of the country’s most pristine national parks. This destination stands out for its untouched natural beauty. Katon Karagay’s remoteness adds to its allure, promising an unspoiled wilderness adventure. 

Sadvakassov said Kazakh Tourism is working on a master plan with local businesses to ensure sustainable tourism growth, balancing new infrastructures such as eco-lodges with the preservation of its delicate ecosystems.

The third gem is Baikonur town, which, according to Sadvakassov, is “yet to be discovered by foreign audiences.” The Baikonur cosmodrome offers an entirely different kind of adventure, blending science, history, and the thrill of space exploration. 

“As you know, the territory is under the lease of the Russian Federation. It is a little hard to get in there but possible. It will probably take you two to three weeks to get permission. If you plan upfront, that’s totally fine. But when you get there, it’s really rewarding. You see the rocket launch, and you touch history,” he said. 

Promoting sustainable tourism

While attracting tourists is a priority, Sadvakassov stressed the complexities of promoting tourism while ensuring sustainability. The growing influx of tourists places considerable strain on the local environment, with noticeable impacts on wildlife.

He also suggested that a more immediate and effective approach to achieving sustainable tourism lies in consumer behavior. The idea is that informed and responsible travelers can drive change more rapidly by prioritizing sustainability in their choices. 

“If the customer is aware of sustainability, and he or she is a responsible traveler, he or she is probably paying attention to the green leaves that are now available on Booking by the name of a property,” he said. 

The expectation that travelers will choose accommodations or other services based on their environmental practices such as the avoidance of single-use plastics, the use of electric or liquified petroleum gas vehicles over traditional fuels, and the sourcing of organic food and beverages, represents a bottom-up approach to sustainability. 

“If it is coming bottom up, I think that is the fastest way because business will adjust. You cannot make business adjust by just changing your regulation, the customer should come and demand because the customer is paying. They want to receive sustainable service. That is the only way the business will adjust,” said Sadvakassov. 

Work with local communities 

Sadvakassov proudly noted a special accolade from the United Nations World Tourism Organization for the village of Saty in the Almaty region, named the best tourism village of 2023.  

Saty village is one example of how Kazakh Tourism is working to engage local communities in sustainable tourism. 

The company trained nearly 1,000 local residents across various villages to transform their homes into guesthouses. This program goes beyond basic hospitality, teaching hosts the nuances of professional service and the incorporation of local products and experiences into their offerings. 

“We saw different businesses grow, for instance, honey makers. The guest houses find the local honey makers and then add them to the package, or people selling their local produce like milk, cheese, and cottage cheese. (…) The entire village is engaged, not only guest houses, because when tourists come, they don’t simply stay overnight and enjoy nature; they probably want to go around and meet different people,” said Sadvakassov. 

Kazakhstan’s itinerary for first time visitor

Sadvakassov shared a personal and evocative account of his favorite journey through Katon Karagay National Park, highlighting the profound allure of disconnecting from the digital world to immerse oneself in the natural beauty of Kazakhstan. 

“There is a spot where you are either above or among the clouds. Can you imagine? There is this so-called Old Austrian road; you go there, and at the peak, you are among the clouds. So I think that is the most picturesque place,” he said. 

He also advises visiting Almaty and its surrounding natural wonders, such as the Charyn Canyon.

“Then Astana, definitely, since I am local, born and raised in Astana, and it is the capital city. I think every visitor should visit this beautiful city,” he added.

The full interview with Kairat Sadvakassov is available on our YouTube channel.  

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