Sustainable tourism in Kyrgyzstan

SOCIETY spoke with Nargiza Kudaiberdieva, SWITCH-Asia GreenTour Project Manager of Helvetas, an independent development organization, about their projects regarding sustainable tourism in the beautiful Central Asian country.

Can you explain what “Helvetas” is about and what kind of tourism development projects it is working on?

Helvetas is committed to a just world in which all men and women determine the course of their lives in dignity and security, using environmental resources in a sustainable manner. Helvetas is an independent organization for development based in Switzerland with affiliated organizations in Germany and the United States.

At the moment, there are three different projects supporting the tourism sector development in Kyrgyzstan – one of them is “Bai Alai”, operating in the south of the country. The underlying approach of the Project is the MSD (Market Systems Development) approach, which provides the basis for achieving sustainable and widespread impact by promoting systemic changes implemented by market participants in selected subsectors such as tourism, handicrafts, apiculture and cattle.

The second project is the “Winter Tourism Kyrgyzstan (WTK)”, funded by SECO. The main phase started from 1 October 2021 – 30 September 2025.  WTK’s overall goal is to support the sustainable and competitive WT value chain development in Kyrgyzstan, providing decent and year-round job and income opportunities for women and men by improving the quality and safe services along the WT value chain; key institutional partners supporting a favourable business environment and improved coordination mechanisms; and both private and public actors addressing ecological and social sustainability.

The third one is the “GreenTour project”, funded by the European Union’s SWITCH-Asia programme. It was launched in March 2020, just when lockdowns started. It’s a four-year project with the objective of supporting the country in transforming to a green economy. With this project, Helvetas responds to the objectives of the Kyrgyz government to advance a more sustainable tourism, involving communities, and diversifying tourism products in order to attract new target groups and clients. Through an integrated business-led approach, the Greentour project mobilizes and mentors Kyrgyz tour operators and their suppliers to adapt and promote sustainable consumption and production (SCP) practices throughout their supply chains and business processes. This includes using local suppliers, purchasing environmentally friendly products, plastic reduction, conserving natural resources and applying socially responsible ways of interacting with local communities.

In the beginning, most of our activities had to be held online due to the pandemic, but when the restrictions were lifted, we started offline trainings in the key tourism hotspots of the country such as Karakol, Bishkek, Osh, Naryn and Kochkor.

So far, around 400 service providers related to the tourism sector, amongst them tour operators, transportation services, accommodation businesses, guides, tourism school instructors and municipalities, have been trained in sustainability principles. Eight of the tour operators have become so called “Travelife Partners” and are now committed to reduce single-use plastic, integrate fair labour conditions, environment and wild life protection measures during their tours. Supporting the local communities through engaging them in tourist experiences is an important part of sustainable tourism promotion.

What are the main goals of these initiatives?

The goal is to help Kyrgyzstan in positioning itself as a sustainable tourism destination. We want to have more competitive providers integrating responsible tours or adding sustainable practices to their services so they can become, at the same time, more competitive among other Central Asian tour providers. We also want to promote them to European buyers and bring them to the next ITB (Internationale Tourismus-Börse Berlin, note from the editor) for example.

Can you tell us something about the process of certification of providers?

First, the participating providers become “Travelife Engaged”, which means that they register online and take courses on sustainability live or online. The next level is “Travelife Partner”, which the companies enter as soon as they start implementing some steps. The highest level companies can reach is “Travelife Certified.” This work is implemented through collaboration with our partners: ECEAT (European Center for Eco- and Agrotourism) and KATO (Kyrgyz Association of Tour Operators).

We also work with smaller providers, like CBTs and home-stays for example, in integrating sustainable practices and greening their offerings through the Kyrgyz Community-Based Tourism Association (KCBTA).

Are the before mentioned projects only including Kyrgyzstan or other countries alongside the historic Silk Road?

The projects focus on Kyrgyzstan but we want to showcase the best experiences to Central Asian partners and we are also planning to have a forum, as well as a training with local sustainability experts for Central Asian auditors in order to bring them all together.

So you will be the first country in Central Asia to have sustainable tourism?

There are many projects working in the region to support tourism sector development. A similar project is being implemented in Kazakhstan, for example, and they also use the same platform. But many things start here in Kyrgyzstan and then they are replicated in other countries.

How is Kyrgyzstan benefiting from tourism?

It is good, for example, that in rural areas, young people and even kids start learning foreign languages now and it is a great employment opportunity – especially for women. The people profiting from receiving tourists are usually not that rich and they don’t really go on vacations or meet many foreign people. But talking to foreigners or even hosting them means having some diversion from the daily routine. And, as mentioned before, from the gender point of view it is also very important. Another positive impact is, that tourism creates income and it not only helps the tour service providers but also the food providers, the restaurants or the transport companies and many more. On the negative side, most of our offerings are built around visiting fragile ecosystems. Our country’s main assets are the nature attractions, so we need to think about avoiding mass tourism and offering more niche tourism, attracting those who can spend more with less environmental pressure.

So how would you define the exact target group and how do tour operators profit from the “Travelife Partner” certification?

Based on statistics, the people that come to Kyrgyzstan are usually between the ages of 18 to 56, which is a very broad range.

Our promotion is supposed to encourage both group and individual tourism. Looking at reports, we see that people nowadays are more aware of having a positive impact on the communities they visit and reducing the carbon footprint of their travels. In parallel, the booking platforms are prioritizing providers that have sustainable approaches and are certified by a recognized platform. It is a selling point, and that is what we are trying to explain to the tour operators: they just need to invest a bit of time and resources, and then they will see the benefits.

Are the companies being controlled once they have the Travelife certificate?

We do a baseline survey with the companies that are going through the programmes in order to see how they apply all the steps they have learned.

And once, we did a test tour with one of them. We piloted a reduced carbon footprint tour with a group from Slovakia and we worked with the provider to integrate such elements as avoiding single-use plastic, collecting the garbage in the mountains, supporting the women cooperative through buying their products for tourists, minimizing imported food products in the menu, etc. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but at least people start thinking about it. Companies and providers shouldn’t look at implementing sustainable approaches and practices as a waste of money but as an investment.

Foto: Nargiza Kudaiberdieva/unsplash