#AstanaEXPO2017: Tourism, the (potentially) great diversifier
Astana has pulled off a coup in hosting EXPO 2017, joining the world’s top echelon of megacities which have hosted large-scale international events, writes Richard R. Dion.
With the EXPO’s theme of ‘Future Energy‘, visitors will be able to experience some of the ground breaking technologies around fossil fuel efficiency and the exponential increase in renewable energies required to address global warming and climate change and to ensure energy security for countries and citizens.
Whatever the energy mix this century, it must be better used. The 20th century took cheap and stable energy for granted and a substantial amount of energy was simply wasted.
While the international exhibition will no doubt be an economic boom for the capital city, particularly its goods, services and construction sectors, EXPO 2017 also offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the whole entire country to raise itself to the level of the world’s major tourist destinations.
In the last few years, the government has taken considerable steps in facilitating tourism, through establishing the visa-free regime, reducing the need to register, constructing hotels to meet increasing demand and now possessing a flagship air carrier in Air Astana. The country has a diverse offer including winter sports, nature and wildlife, culture and beaches, all of which are punching below their weight.
With this offer, Kazakhstan is now in a position to go further, thanks to the visibility that the EXPO will generate. This will, hopefully, serve as an impetus for the country to re-double its efforts to market its strengths, and also to equip regional government, business leaders and, very importantly, civil society groups/community based tourism groups with the tools to realise this potential.
While this potential is clear, it risks being overlooked as the throng takes in EXPO’s theme of “Future Energy” from the capitol only. The Kazakh government has already signaled that it will play an important role in helping national parks, tour companies, hotels and other players digitally connect to their potential clientele, such as through intelligent web design. On the capacity side, sector agencies need to be predictable, multilingual and customer-focused.
In the 2015 World Economic Forum Tourism Competitiveness Report, Kazakhstan ranks 85, with neighbour China at 17, UAE at 24 and Russia at 45, all faring much better. Singapore, the oft-cited model for Kazakhstan, nearly cracked the Top 10. In the WEF Report, Kazakhstan came respectably in most criteria around infrastructure, health and hygiene, tourist service infrastructure, price and competitiveness, but did much less well when it came to preservation of natural resources (World Heritage, species and protected areas) and culture (oral and intangible culture).
Over my 20-year involvement with the country, I have often found myself explaining that it is unimportant how talented a writer is or how precious a natural park is if it is inaccessible, either because a book is only available in the Kazakh language or a park lies at the back of beyond, only reachable by an Mi-8 helicopter or eight hours of difficult roads. All of these assets risk being stranded if they remain unattainable. Understanding Kazakhstan is like trying to penetrate a wall. Once you break through, it’s worth it, but you ask yourself why it was so difficult in the first place.
During EXPO 2017’s 93 days, five million visits are expected. If those projections are correct, what if each one of those visitors stayed an extra three nights in the regions, whether it was the mountains near Almaty, the literary mecca and nuclear legacy of Semey or the archaeological remnants of ancient civilisations and the beaches of Aktau? That could be up to 15,000,000 nights in hotels, bed and breakfasts, houses and yurts in the summer 2017. Each of those nights would include lunches, dinners, museum entrances and (hopefully) well-designed, unique souvenirs.
With sufficient strategic planning in the coming months, this potential economic boom would place Kazakhstan at the forefront of tourism economies, potentially catching up with its neighbours. Most importantly, the country would have a few million five million ambassadors for Kazakhstan’s tourism, worth untold billions in free advertising and sustainable economic diversification in the coming decades.
With extreme focus and a gargantuan push, the Government, together with the regions, the private sector and non-governmental actors, can make up for lost time and cover much ground before next June.
Based in Germany, Richard R. Dion recently returned from Kazakhstan as a Fulbright Senior Specialist. He is also Director of Development of the Bridge Museum, the world’s first museum dedicated to structural and conceptual bridges in San Francisco.