Once a far-flung region, untouched by the hands of travel and tourism, Central Asia is now embracing this lucrative industry, with visitors continuously increasing year-on-year. Emily Millett discovers.
Central Asia is growing fast. The region is still one of the world’s least travelled to destinations, however, tourist numbers are increasing at a significant pace, according to statistics from tourism authorities and industry insiders.
“Year by year tourist numbers are doubling,” said regional manager, Air Astana, Gulf and Indian Subcontinent, Karlygash Omurbayeva.
“As per data we have collected, the number of tourist visas almost doubled from 6,000 to 11,500 in 2016 versus 2015, and the Kazakh Government has taken many measures to boost tourism to the country. Since June 2014, visa requirements for the nationals of 10 countries were relaxed for visa-free entry to Kazakhstan.”
And with this increase being so substantial, tourism is now regarded as one of the country’s prime industries to watch over the coming years.
“Tourism is now one of the utmost important directions of our country,” marketing manager, Rixos President Astana Hotel, Shaida Meraliyeva told TTG. “A new tourism committee was created recently with a new vice minister of tourism. This shows us that the goverment is paying attention to this direction and is actively seeking new opportunities.”
According to Meraliyeva, Kazakhstan has strong potential for the growth of a modern, competitive tourism industry, which will contribute to the development of the economy as a whole and increase the region’s rating on the global market.
“The growth of the hospitality and leisure industry, as well as the transport and environmental sectors, will make the region even more attractive for tourists from other countries,” she added. “Kazakhstan is now putting a lot of effort into developing the incoming tourism sector. The government has invested a lot into making the country acknowledged and recognised all over the world.”
Other tourism related initiatives adopted by the Department of Industry and Tourism Development, according to general manager, The St. Regis Astana, Luciano Sozzo, include the development of a master plan for tourism in Astana (adopted in 2013) outlining the plan of action up until 2020.
Sozzo explained: “As part of the master plan, in 2017 the local authorities will be focusing on the creation of an Astana city brand. Meanwhile, the growing need for high-quality hospitality services is reflected in the appearance of new and established global hotel brands on the map in the city. Thus, the number of hotels in Astana has increased 40 times. The St. Regis Astana will be opening with a view to accommodate the global and local business and political elite following the highest international standards.”
New hospitality players such as The St. Regis Astana not only help to increase the visibility and enhance the reputation of Central Asia as a destination, they also serve to develop the region’s infrastructural capabilities, by introducing international hospitality standards.
“Following its opening in summer 2017, The St. Regis Astana will continue to introduce a new level of luxury services to the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Sozzo told TTG. “The rich heritage and DNA of St. Regis, one of the oldest and most recognised brands in the history of hospitality, will be shared through a series of thematic events, such as the Jazz Legends by St. Regis and many more.”
Kazakhstan is also set to welcome a new Hyatt Regency hotel in Almaty, expected to open in 2017. The 270-room Hyatt Regency Almaty will include 41 suites, three restaurants and bars, a spa and a fitness centre, as well as over 1,500m² of meeting facilities, including a 600m² ballroom.
“We are delighted to re-establish a Hyatt brand presence in Kazakhstan,” said senior vice president, acquisitions and development, Europe, Africa, Middle East and West Asia, Hyatt Hotels Cooperation, Peter Norman.
“The development of this hotel represents a significant step for Hyatt as the company continues to expand its brand footprint in Central Asia.”
Meanwhile, also scheduled to open this year during the summer season is The Ritz-Carlton, Astana. This property will feature 157 guest rooms and suites, over 1,393m2 of event space, exceptional restaurants and lounges, a spa and a fitness centre with an indoor pool. Located within the Talan Towers, the new opening will be a symbol of the city’s growth and development.
According to Meraliyeva of Rixos President Astana Hotel, the government in Kazakhstan has developed a long-term ‘Tourism 2020’ programme, which lists the tourism industry as one of the most significant contributors to the national economy, and includes plans for the evolution and development of all sectors, including hospitality, infrastructure, business and medical tourism.
And the aviation industry is also working hard to keep up with the fast-paced development, with new flights launched and fleet developments in the pipeline.
“As for the plans for 2017, we are planning to increase flights between Almaty and Tbilisi, Astana and Seoul, and introduce new services from Astana to Delhi and Astana to Kiev,” Omurbayeva of Air Astana explained to TTG.
AN INFLUENTIAL EVENT
A lot of this vast infrastructural development can be put down to the upcoming Expo 2017, which is due to be held in Astana from June to September of this year.
“Astana will be hosting this most prestigious international event and the city is expecting over two million visitors from 100 countries of the world,” said Omurbayeva. “It will be Kazakhstan’s first fair of such a high level, as well as the first in Central Asia.”
As the official carrier of the Expo 2017, Air Astana has been carrying the Expo logo on its entire fleet for the last 14 months and will be providing all international Air Astana passengers arriving in Astana with entrance tickets to the event.
Expo 2017 can also be attributed to helping Central Asia broaden its incoming tourism horizons, as according to Omurbayeva, due to the upcoming event, the list of nationalities that can now visit Kazakhstan and stay up to 30 days without obtaining a visa before arrival has expanded to 45 countries.
“This welcomed step has had an immediate effect on leisure travellers who have a wide choice of destinations worldwide. Not only has Air Astana seen more international visitors from these countries, there is also a significant growth in passengers travelling via Kazakhstan to their final destination,” added Omurbayeva.
Hotel’s around Central Asia are also gearing up for Expo 2017, with positive predictions about how the event will boost tourism and new initiatives planned to attract these new guests.
“We are getting ready for the Expo 2017, to host guests from all over the world and to show them Rixos hospitality. The Kazakh authorities expect about five million visitors during this time,” Meraliyeva told TTG.
Rixos President Astana Hotel has plans in place to change the concept of its à la carte restaurant to a Turkish restaurant, where authentic Turkish cuisine will be served. The Garden Bar is also set to be rebranded and all rooms are undergoing a partial renovation in a bid to provide guests with more exclusive comforts.
“We expect to see a growth in individual tourism segments as a post-expo effect and due to the increase of interest in Astana city and major cultural attractions,” said Meraliyeva. “In response, we will target business groups, as we predict more companies will organise their forums and events in Astana.”
According to Meraliyeva, Expo 2017 is a good indication of successful recent growth and improvement of the business tourism sector in Central Asia. Indeed, Expo 2017 aside, the region has been seeing a steady growth in its business travel sector in recent years, as she told TTG: “In Kazakhstan, the business travel market began to grow from the beginning of the 2000s. Now, Astana is a big challenger for the title of business centre of the country. 2017 was also declared as the year of Chinese tourism in Kazakhstan, which will give a powerful boost to the further development of business tourism.”
Commenting on how Central Asia has not been left out of the worldwide boom in business travel, Sozzo added: “One-third of the growth in world trade over the last decade is accounted for by business travellers, improving global corporate productivity tenfold and creating millions of worldwide jobs. Kazakhstan is no exception. Business trips’ precedence over inbound leisure tourism trips, is, following the preliminary estimates, 9:1.”
With the upcoming Expo 2017 set to make waves across the tourism industry in Central Asia, the region is preparing for a significant influx in visitors from around the world, including a continued rise in the ever-growing business travel sector.