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Constructing a Sustainable Tourism Business with USAID in Kyrgyzstan


Final up to date on March 4, 2023

Across the time that I used to be struggling to carry down my breakfast, climbing at a clipped tempo throughout the wild Kyrgyz countryside and up a mountain, I spotted a number of issues wanted to vary. Having simply completed climbing 500 miles of Spain’s Camino de Santiago a number of weeks earlier, I used to be match sufficient for the hike, however not but acclimated to the altitude—or the breakneck tempo.

Motioning my guides right into a sunny pasture, I collapsed amidst the wildflowers, flushed and considerate. Was there a gentler path to the height we sought, I requested? Might we gradual the tempo, add breaks the place my information defined the lifestyle for the Kyrgyz nomads residing close by?

His information fluid and his smile fast, my information started stating passes among the many distant snowy peaks—that’s the place he as soon as hunted sly wolves within the useless of winter. And that seen break within the tree line normally boasted sightings of untamed animals native to the area (although we have been unfortunate to identify not a one). He spoke of snow deeper than my wildest creativeness some years, and advised tales of his household hunkering down within the close by yurt camp, content material in a lifestyle Kyrgyz nomads have practiced for millennia.

I listened, captivated. I made notes, assessed potential, and continued climbing. Hours later, I bounced round concepts for changes to the tour with representatives from the native tourism workforce—a model new non-profit Vacation spot Advertising and marketing Group (DMO) within the infancy levels of creating English-language tourism on this area of Kyrgyzstan. Working collectively, we created an itinerary and program for the hike that matched the potential and curiosity of vacationers with the abilities and information of native Kyrgyz guides.

Pamir Mountains near Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Searching for a Totally different Level of View

It was my second day on the job in Kyrgyzstan as a marketing consultant for a United States Company for Worldwide Growth (USAID) venture that had spent the earlier three years laying the groundwork for a brand new layer of tourism infrastructure for the nation. A giddy sense of collaborative energy seeped into me after I collapsed into my mattress that night time.

For years, I’ve written tales underpinned by the central concept that, when executed proper, tourism is usually a highly effective drive for good. Pairing my ebook that mentioned the moral pitfalls of worldwide volunteering (a standpoint endearing me to few in that trade) with tales of modern social enterprises from world wide, I’ve shared hard-won private views from my decade on the highway. My overriding message: accountable tourism is a guiding mindset, not a catchy buzzword.

That mentioned, I had by no means been greater than vacationer and typically expat in these locations.

Though I’ve seen tourism locations on each vary of the spectrum—from the glitzy shine of Paris’ many excursions and kitschy souvenirs to hillside villages with nary a guesthouse or restaurant in sight—I had by no means thought-about what it takes to create a travelable vacation spot.

Sustainable tourism solely capabilities nicely when layers of prep work first guarantee a vacation spot has an equitable, community-driven plan to handle vacationers and distribute financial advantages throughout each city and rural areas. To work long-term, vacationer influxes should slot right into a purposefully-crafted infrastructure providing locations to sleep, educated native guides for rent, and intriguing journey experiences that respect and honor the area’s cultural and environmental worth.

Learning to make lepyoshka
Bonding with a beautiful Golden Eagle

However that intricate course of is just the start. The world’s most celebrated journey locations have recognized the distinctive expectations they will meet as soon as vacationers arrive. It’s not a lark whenever you dream of the meals in Italy, the seashores of Fiji, or the wildlife in Tanzania—every vacation spot has developed experiences that not solely create a cohesive model id, however reinforce its distinctive promoting level when you arrive.

For 10 years, I’ve partaken the ultimate product of tourism as I hopscotched the globe, however by no means earlier than had I been concerned within the foundational levels—the bottom ground of making a wholly new community of experiences that vacationers will use for years to come back. The venture led to June, and whereas it was a dead-sprint to the end line, I’m equal elements happy with the outcomes and fascinated by the advanced insights effervescent to the floor from my time working with the gifted multinational crew who pulled it off. I’ve realized extra new issues about this trade than I dreamed doable. And guys, I beloved the work.

I’ve lengthy believed that tourism might be the best redistribution of wealth from developed to creating nations. This concept has saved me on the highway, saved me sharing right here on A Little Adrift, and elsewhere, too.

If we journey with a dedication to infusing cash domestically, it might probably profoundly impact the very actual individuals residing the place you journey. As a vacationer, I believed this as reality. I spoke about this at universities, simply final week at a journey convention, and subsequent month at a convention in Russia. It’s my predominant message honed over a decade of journey.

Now, after witnessing a brand new aspect of tourism improvement, I know it as reality. Right here’s the way it went down, and some of the teachings realized from immersing within the flip aspect of journey trade.

Learning how to make a shyrdak felt craft
vendor at Osh Jayma Bazaar
lepyoshka bread making Osh

A Nearer Look: The Venture’s Who, What, and The place

The USAID Enterprise Progress Initiative concerned different sectors past tourism, however supporting journey and tourism was my singular focus (which, you realize, completely is sensible). Kyrgyzstan was among the many most secure but tougher “Stans” to journey. Kazakhstan had a fair proportion of the area’s tourism trade, proving out the curiosity, so the USAID venture would enhance the capability of Kyrgyzstan to compete for impartial vacationers from locations outdoors of the area—interesting foreigners, like me. What’s extra, the venture parts that I labored on have been a fraction of the tourism venture’s scope, which additionally included the in depth mapping of trekking routes, highway indicators in English at key factors for these road-tripping it, capability constructing on the precise hospitality aspect, and extra.

My mates Dan and Audrey—fellow vacationers, tourism consultants, and two of my favourite mates gifted to me by this life on the highway—helped architect the tourist-facing aspect of this new tourism trade. They assessed 5 locations throughout Kyrgyzstan for tourism potential—what was the distinctive id of every location that may appeal to vacationers from all around the world? What excursions, merchandise, and companies would entice vacationers to remain longer as soon as there, thus infusing cash into the native economic system?

They exhaustively surveyed the whole lot somebody might do in every place, and whittled the listing to probably the most fascinating, immersive, and cultural experiences they ought to do.

Once I joined the venture in July 2017, a dozen tour merchandise have been below improvement, new experiences that may spotlight one of the best of the area’s tradition and meals. My function: inform a compelling story for every vacation spot by means of 4 native tourism web sites. I’d write all of the content material to make sure a wealth of correct, actionable on-line journey info so impartial vacationers couldn’t simply go to Kyrgyzstan, however craft an unimaginable itinerary. I’d use my background in sustainable journey and storytelling, coupled with my twelve years of web optimization experience, to solidify the distinct branding of every vacation spot and floor info the remainder of the tourism workforce had spent years setting up. Dan and Audrey spearheaded the tech aspect, and collectively we launched 4 English language web sites into the wild.

Throughout my in-country visits, I’d additionally take a look at and finalize excursions the DMOs would ultimately run for worldwide vacationers. That’s how I discovered myself operating up a peak within the Pamir-Alay Mountains and taste-testing every of the vegetarian-friendly meals excursions—poor me, proper!

Eki Chat Yurt Camp
Danik and Yrskul the shepherds of Eki Chat Jyrgalan
Ashlan-fu, a traditional Kyrgyz dish popular in Karakol

The Invisible Aspect of Tourism Growth

Every little thing created throughout this Kyrgyzstan venture included the features that I’ve at all times taken without any consideration. It’s not simply that the venture put up highway indicators and “you might be right here” maps within the city-centers (which it did), but it surely resulted in hand-crafted experiences for vacationers from the second they hit the bottom.

Over many months and lots of work, your complete workforce—passionate locals working on a regular basis alongside international consultants—created seen and invisible layers of welcome.

  • The seen: bus routes accessible in English, pleasant employees at native vacationer info facilities, printed maps and brochures, hundreds of miles of latest GPS and marked trails by means of the Kyrgyz mountains, and a tourism web site curating native information and providing a complete one-stop-shop for the whole lot you may must know to journey successfully within the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • The invisible: a cohesive model meticulously introduced to information vacationers by means of the myriad issues to do, guesthouse homeowners educated to know dietary restrictions like celiac and vegetarianism, mountain guides with first-aid coaching and the best gear to carry vacationers into the mountains, and excursions designed and marketed in alignment with the pursuits and expectations of international vacationers (whereas guaranteeing each provided exercise respects the native tradition).

It wasn’t sufficient to carry vacationers to Kyrgyzstan—actually, it will hurt if undertaken with out consideration for, and dialogue with, these with precise pores and skin within the recreation: native communities.

Within the 4 core communities in the end benefiting from this venture, native tourism companies united below a Vacation spot Advertising and marketing Group (DMO) working as a nonprofit social enterprise. These inns, eating places, and tour operators would assist the DMO’s efforts to develop native excursions and interface with vacationers, all of the whereas funneling a reimbursement into tasks that may higher the local people—issues like a brand new playspace for kids in one of many villages; free wifi within the metropolis heart of one other; and a stunning, redesigned riverside house to host festivals, concert events, and extra.

And you realize what—it was lots of work!

Native employees numbered within the dozens, everybody collaborating to fine-tune the small print of a related tourism net unfold throughout 5 cities unfold throughout Kyrgyzstan. Issues that off-the-path vacationers chalk up as story-worthy misadventures—complicated transport days and pleasant cultural snafus—have been points to repair, not glorify on the pages on a journey weblog. Whereas it’s not possible to mitigate all potential misadventures (and people actually do make for nice tales), in the event that they occur at each flip then a vacation spot earns a status as “tough to go to,” a dying knell for growing mainstream, impartial tourism.

And greater than something, everybody on the venture was hopeful that this venture might transfer the needle on Kyrgyzstan’s indie tourism trade. I LOVED the thought deeply and was all-in on immersing in every vacation spot so I might assist them craft a narrative compelling sufficient to lure North People and Europeans to the rugged peaks of the Tian Shan vary and the comfy fireplaces of native yurt camps.

Kyrgyzstan charmed me, wholly and utterly. The locals I met embraced each new problem—hospitality coaching programs, capability constructing periods, and web optimization and social media workshops (that was me), to call three. All with the hope of a tourism trade that was doable, however no surety.

Kyrgyz-Ata National Park
Jaichy Yurt Camp near South Shore Lake Issyk-Kul
Presenting on Social Media and SEO for Destination Osh DMO members.

The Tourism Growth Venture’s Consequence

So, what was the end result this effort, which took just below a 12 months of my life and way more time for the others on the venture?

  • 4 full web sites representing 4 DMOs situated throughout the nation highlighting sensible journey info alongside the 40+ fascinating excursions and treks developed and examined.
  • A particular cultural and culinary id for every metropolis and village strengthened by a blogger/influencer marketing campaign in summer season 2017 (if you happen to noticed photographs of Kyrgyzstan in every single place final fall, that’s why!).
  • A community of excursions operating throughout the nation that in the end finish with locals having extra money of their pocket, and extra say in creating a neighborhood tourism trade within the method they consider will finest profit vacationers and locals alike. (Earlier than this, worldwide tour operators primarily formed the nation’s tourism trade).
  • Social media accounts and coaching on finest practices that lure future vacationers to Kyrgyzstan with stunning photographs of all these locations provide.
  • Sustainability throughout the board—the USAID venture has ended and handed the whole lot over to the locals now operating these web sites, excursions, and tourism experiences.
  • Oh, and I even have an insanely granular information of the nation, and might accurately spell the Kyrgyzstan in a single shot. 🙂

We enticed vacationers by means of meals tourism in Karakol—a meals crawl, ethnic Dungan dinner, and mai tokoch bread-making tour. Jyrgalan wanted little quite a lot of photographs to lure nature-lovers to this unspoilt village, now a byword for genuine Kyrgyz hospitality and delightful climbing in what was as soon as a former mining city affected by decline and poverty. The South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul holds the cultural coronary heart of the nation, the place people music tinkles throughout yurt camps. And historic Osh beckons with sprawling bazaars, welcoming locals, and a protracted culinary historical past influenced by its pivotal place on the traditional Silk Street.

Fairly compelling proper?!

The four homepages of Destination Kyrgyzstan tourism sites
Homepages for the 4 tourism web sites: Osh, Karakol, Jyrgalan, and South Shore.

If that doesn’t pique your curiosity then I’ve failed at 12 months’s value of labor. As a result of that’s what I did, I wrote these web sites and did a good bit of consulting and capability coaching, and much more listening—I completely parked my assumptions and as a substitute relearned the trade from the bottom up. Studying from our native workforce members about their imaginative and prescient for tourism, and concerning the cultural and pure features of Kyrgyzstan that they have been most proud to share with the world.

I’m humbled and grateful for the workforce of individuals I labored with on this venture—I certainly realized greater than I provided in return. So I provide due to the DMO employees in every place: I’m nonetheless right here, watching your Instagram accounts. I’m a cheerleader behind the scenes sending good vibes to your cities and villages as you bravely make your manner by means of the surge in tourism I hope ever-increases (manageably) within the coming years. And a due to everybody on the USAID Enterprise Progress Initiative in Bishkek—the tourism workforce members have been grasp puppeteers orchestrating a fancy dance connecting everybody as we launched these locations into the world.

With the Tian Shan mountain vary of Central Asia firmly in my rearview mirror, I’m extra dedicated than ever to selling journey as one avenue of assist for creating nations—an efficient approach to infuse cash straight into the native economic system. When executed nicely, tourism can profoundly impression not simply the vacationers looking for transformative cultural experiences, however the very actual individuals residing, dreaming, and dealing within the locations we’re lucky sufficient to journey.


The contents of this text and web site are the only duty of the creator and don’t essentially replicate the views of USAID or the USA Authorities.

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