Experts Speak in Defense of Kok-Zhailau

Dagmar Shraiber,
Expert in ecotourism, author of two guide-books around Kazakhstan, co-author of a textbook on eco-tourism, twice “Honored Tourism Worker of the RK”.

Starting from 2008, I work in Informational and Resource Center for Ecotourism in Almaty. During these years, I was able to get to know the situation around the internal inbound tourism in Kazakhstan and the environmental conditions in the city of Almaty and the country in general. Based on the gathered information, one can be assured that construction of a mountain ski resort on Kok-Zhailau is not viable.

Tourism is not a one-sided thing; it cannot be viewed only from the point of economic profits and the amount of income to the state budget. Tourism is a complex phenomenon, which includes social, political, and ecological aspects. All of these are considered by the concept of ecotourism, or sustainable tourism.

We base our opinion on the approach that tourism must take into account interests of tourists, i.e. guests, as well as interests of a receiving party, i.e. hosts. Tourism development should never be implemented through infringing upon interests of local people and destructing their natural environment. If that happens, environmental and social balance of a region is disrupted, political tension starts growing, and even dangerous situations can occur, such as terrorist attacks or civil war, and there is a number of examples to prove it. Tourism looses its peacemaking function and is turned into “an apple of discord”.

We do not want this scenario to happen. As a foreigner, of course, I do not have a right to interfere into the internal affaires of the country, but for the past few years, the experience of the Center for Ecotourism proves that Kazakhstan needs to develop accessible tourism, first of all, for all segments of the local population, and not the tourism which can be only enjoyed by the rich and foreigners. Such “healthy development” may be guaranteed by initiating public discussion of projects which can impact the natural environment. Unfortunately, such mechanism does not exist yet. These are the social and political aspects of the question.

If we take a look on the tourism from the point of economical benefit, we will see that the project of construction of the mountain ski resort on Kok-Zhailau looks quite questionable. Existing demand on Kazakhstan’s tourism product does not allow to expect that this project will pay for itself. At the present time, the country is visited by about 40,000 foreign tourists annually, and the majority of the visits are related to business purposes. Surveys which we conducted among foreign citizens bring us to a conclusion that mountain skiing in Kazakhstan interests only a tiny minority. There are many reasons for that: visa and registration rules, high prices, unsatisfactory service, remoteness of the country, environmental pollution, extortion, bribery, etc. Relying on Chinese and Indian consumer, in my opinion, is also dubious. These countries develop that own mountain skiing territories, where skiing will be cheaper and more comfortable. Thus, there is a high chance that the project will fail because of the low demand. The budget money will be wasted. This is economical aspect of the question.

But most of all, I am concerned about ecological aspect. Worldwide experience of developing such projects, especially in Alps, shows that such large resorts have a very negative impact on environment. It all starts with tree cuts and sharp increase in erosion, and ends with excessive consumption of resources, in particular, water and energy sources, pollution of air, water reservoirs, destruction of landscapes. Developments take place primarily on untouched territories. In this case, Kok-Zhailau – is a part of a unique in all aspects Ile-Alatau National Park, native land of Sivers Apple Tree, natural habitat of snow leopard, and many other rare plants and animals, including the species registered in the Red Book of Kazakhstan. The city of Almaty suffers from the high atmospheric pollution. People who breathe Almaty air everyday realize that very well. Kok-Zhailau Hollow with its thick forest plays a very important protective role for the city. It is impermissible to turn this place into 500 km of skiing tracks.

If somebody thinks that I want to discredit a beautiful project – it is not true. Tourism in Almaty and in its vicinities needs to be developed; the President is right in this. But specifically Kok-Zhailau is not a place for a ski resort. There are plenty of good alternatives.

Let’s develop those alternatives together: from “above” and “below”, involving the immense creative potential of the tourism practitioners and the public of Kazakhstan.