Central Asia is rising the ranks on the tourism hotlist and is emerging as a destination with ‘undiscovered’ and ‘unexplored’ appeal. Emily Millett finds out whether the region’s infrastructure has what it takes to accommodate the influx.
Central Asia hasn’t always been on the tourism radar. Long a convenient destination for business and corporate travel, thanks to its position on the oil and gas route, today Central Asia is opening its doors to a new kind of tourism and is attracting experiential leisure travellers from far and wide in search of authentic, unexplored destinations away from the well-trodden tourist trails.
Tourism is on the rise across the region – so much so that Uzbekistan held its first International Investment Tourism Forum last November. According to the deputy minister of finance, Sunatullo Bekenov, from this year until 2025, the country is set to pour some $3 billion into its domestic tourism infrastructure, on top of $500 million towards building new hotels across its largest cities and most popular destinations. As this large-scale investment unfolds, Uzbekistan’s current portfolio of hotels will almost double, with the same prediction in place for tourism revenue in the country.
Still considered an emerging region on the tourism scale, Central Asia’s current infrastructure needs a boost, especially due to the growth of traffic in increasingly popular destinations such as Uzbekistan.
Infrastructural developments planned for the country include new railways, new airport infrastructure and new roads, all set to provide for the estimated 7.2 million foreign arrivals by 2025 – a 50 per cent increase over 2018. And infrastructural improvements are not solely reserved for the capital, Tashkent, with industry expansion in Uzbekistan also set to include the development and promotion of secondary cities or attractions such as Samarkand, Bukhara Khiva, Fergana and Andijan.
In light of the region’s steady emergence as a tourism destination, a number of new hotels are opening across Central Asia, fuelled by a rising number of travellers and growing interest.
Following the 2017 and 2018 openings of The St. Regis Astana; The Ritz-Carlton, Astana; DoubleTree by Hilton Almaty; and Hampton by Hilton Astana Triumphal (all in Kazakhstan), the blossoming destination is currently preparing for the 2019 opening of Hyatt Regency Almaty, Rahat Palace. Located on Satpaev Avenue in the centre of Kazakhstan’s commercial and financial capital, the 292-room hotel, will feature smartly configured guestrooms, culinary experiences, a multi-functional lobby and a variety of places to work, connect, eat and drink. The property will also offer a signature Hyatt StayFit gym and an indoor swimming pool.
“We are delighted about the return of the Hyatt Regency brand to Almaty and introducing a globally recognised brand to the city that will resonate well with the growing base of business travellers,” said vice president, development for Eastern Europe, Russia and CIS, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Takuya Aoyama. “We believe the hotel will be an exciting development as we build on the strength of the Hyatt Regency brand throughout Central Asia.”
Kazakhstan is also set to welcome The Ascott Limited (Ascott) to its hotel portfolio, with the scheduled 2020 opening of Somerset City Centre Atyrau, located in the city of Atyrau – one of Kazakhstan’s major economic centres and a key oil and gas hub. This property will represent the group’s first serviced residence located in the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Managing director – Middle East, Africa, Turkey and India, Ascott, Thomas Wee said: “We are delighted to sign the contract with KG Hotel Apartments to develop Somerset City Centre Atyrau which, upon opening in the first half of 2020, will help meet the growing demand for internationally-branded accommodation in one of Kazakhstan’s major economic hubs.
“Atyrau is a modern and thriving city with a rapidly developing infrastructure and a rich blend of European and Asian culture. The current undersupply of quality extended-stay lodgings for business travellers who want to stay in the city centre presents an exciting opportunity for Ascott to enter the market with our award-winning Somerset brand of serviced apartments,” he added.
When fully operational, the 147-unit serviced residence will comprise a mixture of upscale studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Guest facilities will also include a residents’ lounge, an indoor swimming pool, a Turkish bath, a sauna, steam rooms and a gym.
Elsewhere, in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the Radisson Blu brand by Radisson Hotel Group readied itself for the opening of its debut property in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek this year. The destination’s hotel development portfolio is set to be further complemented by the upcoming opening of Sheraton Bishkek Hotel in July this year. The five-star hotel is located within walking distance of the city’s business, shopping and entertainment districts, and the transportation network. Facilities are set to include a congress hall, a conference hall for 1,000 people, meeting rooms, a health club, a fitness centre and an outdoor swimming pool, as well as a selection of bars and restaurants.
And Uzbekistan also has plans to expand its hotel industry and tourism infrastructure, with the upcoming addition of Park Inn by Radisson Tashkent City Hotel & Apartments. The newly built hotel and apartment project is due to open in 2021 in the capital of Uzbekistan. The Hyatt Regency Tashkent; Radisson Blu Hotel, Tashkent; and Hilton Tashkent are all scheduled to open in 2025.
Executive vice president and chief development officer, Radisson Hotel Group, Elie Younes said: “We’re excited to bring the Park Inn by Radisson brand to Uzbekistan, a country where tourism is growing rapidly. In 2018, Uzbekistan welcomed five million tourists – with Tashkent being a popular choice among travellers as the country’s most cosmopolitan city. We’re delighted to be bringing a new brand to such a vibrant region and offering this market something fresh and exciting.”
The property is set to consist of 300 rooms – including 50 serviced apartments, a conference hall, five meeting rooms, a gym, an all-day dining restaurant, a lobby lounge/bar and a Sky Bar.
It will be located in the large-scale development of Tashkent City, consisting of business centres, congress halls, shopping and leisure complexes, and residential districts, and is due to be completed by Q4 of 2021.
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Central Asia’s aviation industry is also playing a key role in the ongoing growth and continued promotion of the region’s blossoming tourism industry, with new route developments, bilateral agreements and initiatives to facilitate passage into the area.
Air Astana, the flag carrier of Kazakhstan, was set to launch low-cost airline FlyArystan in May this year. The airline will initially operate a fleet of four Airbus A320 aircraft configured to an all-economy class of 180 seats, with plans in place to grow this fleet to 15 by 2022. The airline’s inaugural domestic routes are from Almaty International Airport to Taraz and Uralsk.
President and CEO, Air Astana, Peter Foster said: “FlyArystan adds strength to what we can now call the Air Astana Group. It enables us to effectively compete in the growing low-cost travel segment in our country on better than equal terms with other airlines. FlyArystan gives us the opportunity to grow the overall market by taking customers from other forms of travel and we are proud to be playing an important social and economic development role in Kazakhstan by creating this exciting new airline.”
The new head of FlyArystan, Tim Jordan added: “FlyArystan presents a great opportunity for both Kazakhstan citizens and foreign visitors to travel more easily and comfortably across this vast country with lower air fares.”
Further route and fleet development from the national carrier includes a drive to replace the current fleet with new generation Embraer E190-E2 aircraft, as well as a move to increase the frequency of services from both Almaty and Astana to Tashkent.
Uzbekistan Airways is also boosting its fleet with the recent receipt of a fourth Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft in April this year. The aircraft was acquired as part of an investment project to upgrade and expand the flag carrier’s fleet with modern aircraft to ensure competitiveness, efficiency, customer comfort and safety.
This April also saw Uzbekistan Airways further strengthen the destination’s aviation infrastructure, with the completion of a new passenger terminal at Termez Airport in southern Uzebekistan, as part of a country-wide investment and infrastructure project. The new terminal is capable of serving 400 passengers per hour and is set to open the area to new international flights, in turn increasing the flow of tourists.
Outside the region itself, Turkish Airlines has recently cemented its commitment to Central Asia with the opening of a new two-storey central office in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, with future plans in the pipeline to expand the route network between the two destinations.
While still in the nascent stages of discovering its tourism identity, Central Asia is expanding on its traditional business travel offering, opening up its undiscovered territories to a more intrepid and off-the-beaten-track explorer.