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After a hard day’s cross-country drive that ended at an impressive elevation of 3,400 meters, most people in our group hesitated before climbing on. Several people opted out of the late afternoon hike/climb. But those of us who remained scrambled 550 meters up a near-vertical, talus rise into Kyrgyzstan’s barren and ragged Tien Shan mountains, were helplessly lured by the excitement of experiencing real-time tracking of one of the world’s most elusive mammals: the majestic snow leopard.
Unbridled adrenaline overcame all three of us when our two guides — sons of former snow leopard hunters — pointed out an endangered snow leopard’s paw prints and scat left just over a week before we arrived. We eagerly scrambled upward to two remote camera traps to retrieve memory cards, which we hoped held images of a snow leopard that might have triggered the camera sensors since being installed about a month ago.
Following our descent and pre-dinner tent gathering, we gathered around Asylbek Rajiev, head of the Kyrgyz Association of Tour Operators, and our incredible travel bureau tour leader and guide, Ernist Djumagulov, who revealed that, as a team, “we” captured both day and nighttime images of the snow leopard. Sheer childlike smiles, high fives, and cheers from the six international buyers, Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) team, and all the adventure reconnaissance support crew and wildlife guides erupted at the news.
This and other wildlife experiences — tracking and spotting Marco Polo sheep, ibex, golden eagles, and more — were just “icing on the cake” on an impressively managed, nine-day, off-piste reconnaissance trip through Kyrgyzstan, an often-overlooked destination in Central Asia, which is bordered to the north by Kazakhstan, to the east by China, to the south by Tajikistan, and to the west by Uzbekistan. The journey led us from Bishkek, the country’s capital city on the southern border of Kazakhstan, to Karakol and further south on the easternmost flank of the Tien Shan mountain range, just a few hundred kilometers away from Kashgar, which is situated in far western China, the storied Silk Road spice market of Marco Polo’s time. Though most travelers typically follow the actual Silk Road while traveling within Kyrgyzstan, one of the primary purposes of the August 2017, ATTA-led reconnaissance was to expose veteran buyers of Central Asia to deeper, nature-based, and culturally rich adventure experiences in this mostly mountainous republic.
In partnership with USAID, the ATTA coordinated with Discover Kyrgyzstan, the official tourism information and promotion site of the Kyrgyz Republic, and local suppliers to assist a specially curated small group of visiting international outbound operators in enhancing their understanding of, and professional relationships within, the nation. Specifically, the trip was designed to help these operators develop new contacts; expose them to newly developed, community-based opportunities and experiences in Kyrgyzstan; assist Kyrgyzstan in continuing to evolve the quality, professionalism, and innovation of its adventure tourism product; and focus extra attention on the region. International participants included:
- Exodus Travels (UK) – Thomas Harari
- KE Adventure Travel (UK) – Tim Greening
- SNP (Netherlands) – Cindy Roelofs
- Terres d’Adventure (France) – Thomas Callens
- Wilderness Travel (USA) – Barbara Banks
- World Expeditions (Australia) – Caroline Mongrain
With efforts like this, Kyrgyzstan is bracing itself for responsible growth as intrepid travelers worldwide seek more remote destinations offering once-in-a-lifetime type of experiences. For context, by year’s end 2016, approximately four million tourists arrived in Kyrgyzstan, mostly in the form of mass tourism to the north shore of Lake Izykul with Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, and China. This made up more than 80 percent of the country’s visitors. Outside of those “nearby” source markets, only 100,000 international guests annually visit Kyrgyzstan, reflecting significant opportunity for this remote destination boasting one of Central Asia’s greatest (and rising) populations of snow leopards.
Reconnaissance trips like this one are often a win-win experience for both participating international outbound tour operators and representatives from the host country. When outbound operators experience a country’s unique culture and people for themselves, they are inspired to act with immediate results.
“A big plus was the country and the people. I was honestly surprised by the landscape, which was so much more mountainous and untouched than I had imagined. There could not have been a better moment than when we discovered film from a camera trap on a remote ridge that we had just collected showed a snow leopard strolling along only the week before,” said Tim Greening of KE Adventure Travel (UK). “Also, the Kyrgyz could not have been more accommodating and friendly. It makes it really worthwhile when they are so genuine and trying so hard.
“There are definitely lots of rough edges over there and much for many of the DMCs to learn, but because they are so sincere I will give them all the support I can over the next year. I came back with at least 4 new KE trips to develop, and it will be interesting to see how these progress over the next six months.”
Fortunately for Kyrgyzstan, snow leopards and its amazing array of alpine wildlife are just one dimension of this multi-dimensional “celestial” landscape, as the locals refer to their mountainous region. For the August reconnaissance, the ATTA, USAID, and Kyrgyz partners explored a host of newly crafted cultural experiences. They participated in ancient, Kyrgyz nomadic horse games, worked with yurt makers and global experts in felt making and other art and design crafts, and cooked with and tasted the exquisite cuisine of the Dungan (of Chinese origin) community of Karakol, to name just a few of the experiences the group witnessed and experienced. Additionally, the cultural experiences were surrounded by a nearly limitless array of hiking, trekking, mountaineering, ski-touring, and mountain biking options, all backed by serious gear for serious outdoors people.
“The trip to Kyrgyzstan was invaluable. Clearly an immense amount of work had gone into creating a trip that would show us some of the unique possibilities of Kyrgyzstan, in an extremely concentrated amount of time,” Banks said. “The ATTA’s work, and its selection of such a strong on-the-ground partner leapt us forward by a year in our ability to offer a trip to this captivating country. We were able to hit the ground running, immediately working through itinerary ideas, since ATTA had done all of the painstaking groundwork ahead for us. The trip was an absolute joy, and will result in clear program offerings in very short order.”
During and post-reconnaissance, feedback was constructive, swift, and pointed, primarily because the six participating international buyers are keenly interested in the Kyrgyz Republic’s future and genuinely wish to help fast-track certain aspects of adventure travel potential for commercial development in the coming years. For example, immediate follow-up insights from Harari addressed some of the discussions the ATTA, buyers, and local suppliers covered during the longer drives across the country: “Specifically, the future potential lies in developing programs and routes which allow circular treks and circuits, as opposed to just point-to-point. Clearly there are a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan who already get this, though others, from the Marketplace meetings, just don’t, but that’s to be expected.”
Quick learners, adaptive, and visibly interested in deeply understanding the greater picture, the Kyrgyzs’ foray into long-range planning for responsible tourism development seems a natural fit for their world view. Like others in similarly remote locales in emerging economies, the Kyrgyz seek to modernize, innovate, and diversify, all while keeping their traditions and cultures alive. They want to forge a path that allows for just enough growth to sustain themselves. Several conversations throughout the journey revealed an intense focus by the elders on carving out paths for the future of their children.
Furthermore, there was a heightened commitment and interest among the many suppliers we met along the way to cooperate among regions and companies throughout Kyrgyzstan. When querying key influencers about any subsurface issues, it was evident there were few in-market challenges. Mostly, there is a genuine interest in education and training, gender equality, fairness in pay, and other matters of importance. The overall business climate is solid, and there is an earnest eagerness to seek feedback and listen, and those with whom we coordinated with for this reconnaissance were highly responsive throughout. These characteristics bode well for international outbound providers considering offering Kyrgyzstan to their clients.
On the final day of the reconnaissance, the international buyers met in a business-to-business Marketplace, the ATTA’s signature networking session, with public and private sector representatives from Kyrgyzstan to build new relationships in person, seek innovative offerings, and exchange expertise.
“It was an important event for all our local tour operators,” Rajiev said. “While some of the international buyers attending the ATTA reconnaissance effort were already offering tours to Kyrgyzstan, it was a key opportunity for them to be exposed to and make new connections with local suppliers. We hope that the Marketplace will lead to solid results and steady increases in adventure traveler arrivals in Kyrgyzstan.”
Building off the earlier theme of cooperation, Kylych Zhumabekov of the Jailoo Tourism Community said, “I would like to mention that, apart from meeting with international buyers, it was a ‘unifying’ event for us. Our company operates in Naryn, and during the Marketplace we met other regional companies that work in Naryn Oblast that we never knew about.”
According to Altynbek Begaliev of Logos Travel, “I find the Marketplace to be one of the most effective tools to connect and negotiate with potential partners. I had an opportunity to discuss ‘pure’ business, which is not always possible by attending the international tourism fairs. This Marketplace was very effective since the buyers had completed their FAM trip prior to the networking and were interested in selling tours to Kyrgyzstan.”
Despite three, up-front training webinars intended to help Kyrgyz suppliers prepare for the B2B session, not all of the participants were ready. After the Marketplace, more seasoned buyers offered coaching and guidance to the participants on how to prepare for another such event, and they shared candid post-Marketplace feedback to our partners in the region.
“Since we are a new company it was our first time participating in the Marketplace event,” Ulukman Bapaev of Tabiat Tout said. “We learned a lot about the world standards, expectations, and ‘musts’ of structuring a successful tour.”
Karen Westergaard, chief of party for the USAID Business Growth Initiative (BGI) Project, played a key role in the ultimate success of the reconnaissance, Marketplace event, and initial stages of the one-year, ATTA-USAID-Kyrgyzstan collaboration, which runs through May 2018. “We were thrilled that our ATTA tour operators were so encouraging, both about Kyrgyzstan’s potential as a ‘hot’ adventure and cultural destination to offer their clients, and that they had such a positive experience on their tour,” she said. “I’m so proud of my staff and their dedication to ensuring that the trip was such a success. We look forward to doing what we can over the coming year to help ATTA tour operators put Kyrgyzstan solidly on the map of ‘must-see’ destinations for adventure travelers.”
The ATTA has committed to assisting destinations and local suppliers in thoughtfully developing adventure tourism in a manner intended to leave a net-positive impact and protect people, culture, and wild places while also leaving a positive socio-economic footprint. While doing so, it has been interesting to hear a recurring theme about how such reconnaissance efforts deliver for overwhelmed buyers with limited time, resources, and funds to tackle such efforts on their own.
“It is reconnaissance trips such as this where the role of the ATTA is invaluable. It would have been virtually impossible for KE Adventures as a stand-alone tour operator to gain such an in-depth insight into the country and have the chance to meet virtually every local adventure DMC in person within a nine-day span,” Greening said. “What we achieved on this short trip would have probably taken more than two years if we had tried to do it ourselves. On top of all this, the trip was shared with a group of professionals based from all over the world. We networked, learned from each other’s past experiences, and had great fun, all because we are participating members of the ATTA.”