Skift Take

If Kyrgyzstan wants to develop tourism, it should look to harness its abundant natural resources. The creation of a mammoth "eco -city" in an environmentally vulnerable area may not be the best boost for the country’s tourism potential.

Asman — an ambitious $20 billion “eco-city” project is set to come up on the picturesque shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul. However, environmental activists aren’t impressed.

Their argument — a project doesn’t become sustainable just by virtue of adding the adjective “eco” in its description. They perceive it as an attempt at “greenwashing.”

Lake Issyk-Kul, the seventh-deepest lake in the world and the second-largest high-altitude lake, is a biological and economic resource of the country located in Central Asia. Besides being a prominent tourist destination, the lake was also recognized as part of the UN agency’s worldwide network of Biosphere Reserves.

“Every tourist coming to our country makes it a point to visit Issyk-Kul. It is a famous destination and the highlight of every travel itinerary,” said Aisha Mambetalieva, director and founder of Kyrgyz Tourism — a travel company.

Even before the eco-city announcement, ecological experts had been raising concerns about the deterioration of the environmental situation in Issyk-Kul due to climate change and unregulated construction.

“The lake’s water level has been declining over the past decade due to the redirection of flowing rivers to irrigate agricultural lands,” said Zalina Enikeeva, research fellow and academic programmes coordinator at the Institute of Public Policy and Administration, University of Central Asia.

Building a brand new city cannot be a positive project or “eco-friendly” by its very existence, said Rob Holmes, founder and chief strategist of GLP Films — a production and marketing agency on travel and sustainability storytelling.

“Developers are using the word ‘eco’ to help generate positive press, awareness and interest,” Holmes said.

The Eco-City Effect on Lake Issyk-Kul

This development of Asman eco-city, many argue, racks up a number of problems and challenges, including environmental pressure, water pressure and local changes associated with development.

Kyrgyzstan does not need these huge, artificial unnecessary projects to develop tourism, said Mambetalieva. “The need of the hour is to protect the ecological balance. Huge metal buildings and other artificial infrastructure come in the way of sustainable development.”

In addition to the environmental damage and pressure on local water reserves, many argue that it would lead to local community and cultural destruction.

Some also maintain that the eco-city will squeeze out local residents, most of whom would be unable to afford apartments in the new city and could simply turn the area into a playground for the wealthy, said Holmes.

The authorities have sought to appease such critics, saying they would provide alternative land in nearby villages for anyone who loses land because of the project. Government officials have also promised apartments in the city to villagers whose houses will be demolished to make way for the new development.

“Apartments and alternative land are no replacement for established roots, agricultural practices, generational heritage and community bonds. Local people will be resettled and then there are traditional social and cultural changes that come with a modern city — it is simply not sustainable,” argued Holmes.

Government Narrative About the Eco-City

Asman, meaning sky in Kyrgyz, would be designed for about 500,000 residents and would be built on 4,000 hectares of land over the next seven to 10 years.

First presented by the Kyrgyzstan government in July last year as a sustainable city, the Kyrgyz president’s office had said that the city would comply with the principles of a green economy, relying on alternative energy sources and using environmentally-friendly models of transport.

Complete with a state-of-the-art business centre, banks, sports arena, modern healthcare facilities and high-tech parks, the Asman project is touted to be a catalyst for the development of Kyrgyzstan’s economy and tourism.

Three French companies — Finentrep Aspir, MEDEF, and Mercuroo — had pledged to invest about $5 billion for the first phase, according to Ruslan Akmataliev, the newly-appointed head of the Asman State Directorate. The source of funding for the remaining $15 billion needed to complete the project has not been disclosed by Akmataliev.

Curiously, notorious entrepreneur Timur Faiziev, who had been wanted for corruption, had been appointed the head of the state directorate for construction of the eco-city in January. However, he was promptly replaced by Akmataliev.

Skift’s queries to the Asman eco-city office went unanswered.

Tourism in Kyrgyzstan

Tourism in Kyrgyzstan has been recovering quickly post Covid, especially this year, mainly due to the large influx of sanction-hit Russian tourists post February 24.

Along with Turkey and Armenia, the country also features among the top three outbound destinations chosen by Russians for their summer holiday. The tourist arrivals are further expected to go up in the country.

However, like any other destination, tourism in Kyrgyzstan is not without its problems. The country features in the ‘black list’ of the European Union — with the European Union states’ sky closed for airlines of Kyrgyzstan.

“Our government should work to prove compliance with all International Civil Aviation Organization requirements to help remove Kyrgyzstan from the European Union black list,” said research fellow Enikeeva.

The government should instead be focusing on issues such as the repairing of the existing infrastructure, including roads, toilets, cleaning of the lake and the lake’s shores, Enikeeva said. “Implementation of liabilities for all resorts and yurt camps to observe all environmental norms and requirements to save the nature, local flora and fauna should be the government’s priority.”

Nature and the environment are fragile, but these are also the main assets of tourism. Development of tourism in Kyrgyzstan should make ecological sense and should be sustainable, Kyrgyz Tourism’s Mambetalieva pointed out.

Tags: asia monthly, climate change, coronavirus recovery, ecotourism, european union, Russia war, sustainability

Photo credit: Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issyk-Kul is the second-largest high-altitude lake. Thomas Depenbusch / Wikimedia Commons