Kyrgyzstan’s tourism offerings are largely built around the country’s natural attractions – mountains, rivers, glaciers and lakes. The private and public sector have put in a lot of effort in recent years to mark the country on the world tourism map and attract more visitors to Kyrgyzstan. But achieving these goals carries risks. With increasing flows of tourists, growing investment and little or no consideration of sustainability, the country may face land degradation, water and soil pollution and other challenges that pose a threat to its fragile ecosystems.
The European Union-funded SWITCH-Asia program launched the Greentour project in 2020 to support the development of an inclusive and sustainable tourism model. Greentour, which is implemented by Helvetas, recognizes the critical linkages tourism creates across sectors, and tourism’s potential to be a powerful economic driver for Kyrgyzstan.
Greentour plays an essential role in educating and capacitating tour operators and other stakeholders in the sector (e.g., destination management organizations, central government and regional municipal staff involved in tourism) on the topic of sustainability management. The project also coaches and supports tour operators in attaining coveted credentials that can elevate their business, such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council-recognized Travelife certification. Greentour also works with the tour operators’ suppliers (hotels, guides, excursion providers, producers of food and handicrafts) to train and motivate them for integration of sustainability principles in their operations and services.
Navigating the pandemic
The Greentour project’s launch coincided with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic that brought unprecedented global health and economic challenges. The government of the Kyrgyz Republic announced a state of emergency on March 17, 2020, following identification of the first COVID-19 cases in the country. Borders, enterprises and educational institutions were closed for a strict lockdown.
This public health crisis greatly affected the implementation of the Greentour project’s efforts to increase and professionalize tourism – one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. But despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 restrictions, the project made adaptations where possible, avoiding a full shutdown of operations. In 2020, sustainability trainings for tour operators and suppliers were conducted online. When restrictions were lifted, project activities resumed in person. To date, more than 800 representatives of the tourism sector have been trained in sustainability principles and aspects through online and offline activities.
Twenty-one tour operators have been awarded Travelife Partner status – a certification that confirms their commitment to sustainability and integration of sustainable tourism practices in their offerings and operations.
Putting sustainability into practice
Greentour’s training and coaching interventions led tour operators to create new policies and practices that are laying the foundation for Kyrgyzstan’s longevity as a green destination for tourists.
- Companies’ efforts to embed sustainability into their workplaces and tours include:
- Replacing disposable cutlery and utensils with metal reusable options. This reduced one company’s single use of plastic by 90%.
- All company vehicles run on liquid petroleum gas.
- Calculating the CO2 emissions caused by tours.
- Creating a policy that limits animals’ consecutive working hours and commits to selecting responsible suppliers.
- Informing all suppliers and business partners about sustainability policies, while proactively encouraging them to pursue sustainability certification.
- Involving staff in the creation of a sustainability policy and providing professional development opportunities on sustainable tourism.
- Incorporating human rights and child safety standards into supplier contracts.
- Striving for 100% of tour workers (drivers, guides, porters, vendors) to be locals.
- Guide and porter policies that ensure fair pay and decent working conditions.
- Developing authentic cultural tours that support local businesses, including dinners or lunches with local families.
An award-winning project
In 2021, the Greentour project received an award from the Kyrgyz association of tour operators as the best development project in tourism, voted on by the association members.
In 2022, together with the Swiss Bai Alay Project of Helvetas, the Greentour project supported the Alay region in submitting a good practice story for the 2022 Green Destinations Top 100 Stories. The story highlighted the integration of Alay women artisans into Kyrgyzstan’s tourism value chain, resulting in new employment opportunities and additional income in a remote, mountainous area of the country. The addition of these artisans to the sector preserves traditional handicrafts, ensures gender-inclusive employment, and shares cultural insights with tourists – all while supporting the region in its approach to sustainable development.
The submission resulted in Alay winning a place among the Top 100 Stories. This was the first region in Central Asia to get this award!
Entering the competition requires compliance with 15 basic sustainability criteria. In preparation, the Greentour project conducted trainings in sustainable destination management for the Alay tourism sector, undertook a review of existing data and research on sustainability criteria, and implemented a tourism impact assessment for the region. Greentour also supported the region in updating its tourism development strategy to align with these goals and indicators. These interventions resulted in successful compliance with the required sustainability criteria checklists.
Standing out in a competitive tourism market
The award marked Kyrgyzstan on the world green destinations map and made Alai tourism stakeholders strive for more achievements in the sustainability path. The award provides a new promotional opportunity for the region of Alai, and the providers of tourism services have also started using the TOP 100 award logo alongside the Booking.com and Tripadvisor badges in their facilities and on the websites.
Greentour will continue working with project partners on achieving the sustainability targets and promoting the country as a place for responsible travel. The tour operators and their suppliers will continue to be supported with capacity building in product development, design and promotion. The tour operators who progress most in the certification process will have the opportunity to attend the world’s largest tourism fair – ITB Berlin in March 2023 – where together with partners, Greentour will support the representation of Kyrgyzstan as a destination committed to sustainable tourism development.
In the project’s fourth and final year, Greentour will help hotels, guest houses and yurt camps to get the Good Travel Seal certification – thereby making them more competitive in the tourism market, and further contributing to socially and environmentally responsible development of the sector.
About the Author
Nargiza Kudaiberdieva is a project manager at Helvetas for the EU SWITCH-Asia GreenTour: Promoting Sustainable Tourism Project. She has been working on development projects for more than 20 years, and has extensive experience managing infrastructure projects, human and institutional capacity strengthening, destination creation and development, marketing, sustainable tourism promotion, and product development.