How would you assess the tourism sector in Almaty?
We believe that there is huge potential here, and in the coming years Almaty should become one of the biggest tourism destinations in the region, particularly in the development of ski tourism; the region of Almaty is surrounded by very beautiful mountains, which are located very close to the city center and to the international airport. During the year we have more than 300 sunny days and the altitude of Shymbulak Mountain is 2,200 meters from the bottom station and 3,200 from the top station. We have excellent skiing conditions. The season is very long, and the amount of snow per year is about nine meters. When you combine all of these advantages that we have, there is no city in the world that compares. There are many beautiful places around Almaty, not just ski resorts. From the city center, you can drive a half hour to reach glaciers in one direction, deserts and dunes in another, and a lake in another. We believe that in a few years the tourism industry will contribute at least as much to GDP as minerals and oil production.
In 2013 Russian Forbes included Shymbulak Resort among the best 10 ski venues in Eurasia. What factors have led to the success of the resort?
In 2010 we completed the first stage of the refurbishment project of Shymbulak. Shymbulak is no longer solely a sports base to prepare the national Alpine Ski Team. It is now a beautiful leisure resort, operational every day, even during the summer. All of the equipment we installed during the refurbishment is brand new. We hired many well-known consultants worldwide, from France and Italy for example. This resort is smaller than some resorts in the Alps, but it is unique. It is very modern and it has many different kinds of slopes. The ski lifts are very fast and can support 2,000 passengers per hour. We also built a gondola from the city to the resort, and that takes only 15 to 20 minutes.
What facilities characterize Shymbulak? What kind of additions will be implemented in the second phase of the project?
In the first phase we replaced all of the lifts, snowmaking machines, and the lighting system for night skiing. We changed the slopes to make them more friendly for beginners. This building includes seven different restaurants and food and beverage facilities. We have a rental point downstairs to find any level of ski equipment or snowboards. We also have a huge spa area. In the second stage we will add a hotel, service departments, apartments for sale, and retail units. There will be shops, discos, cafes, and even festivals—it will be just like a European-style resort village.
90% of the visitors at the resort are Kazakhstani. Can you share with us your strategies to attract more foreign tourists to this venue?
During the weekend when the weather is sunny, Shymbulak has more than 7,000 visitors per day; we have lines on the gondolas even though they are the fastest in the world. That is why we have not advertised as much in foreign markets. There is a national project for a new Almaty ski resort, Kok-Zhailau, which will have 60 kilometers of slopes with 16 ski lifts. In total the project will include 500 kilometers of slopes, which is huge. Even though Europe has many places to ski, we have our own market. If you look around at a three-hour flight radius, there are so many different places that have access to Kazakhstan; China, Russia, India, and the Gulf countries. It is already a huge market.
What are you doing to attract customers in the off-season?
Five years ago, Shymbulak had a record of 2,000 people per day in the winter, and fewer than 100 in the summer. Now 52% of people are coming to Shymbulak in the winter, and 48% in off-season. We want to introduce more activities for people in the summers, not only having coffee and steak in a restaurant. We also have some hiking and trekking trails. We have the rope park for kids and adults who want to improve their skills. We have open-air parties, food festivals, and laser shows in the summer.
How are you working on establishing partnerships with schools and universities in the city to promote skiing?
We are studying similar programs in France and Austria. In the academic curriculum of schools and universities, the students have mandatory ski lessons, at least 10 hours per season, and can supplement sports lessons with skiing. We are preparing a plan to present to the Ministry of Education soon. We also offer special deals for students to rent a ski pass, equipment, and hire an instructor at half price or less.
Do you have any specific goals or targets that you would like to achieve by the end of this year?
We have started the year with very good figures even though there was a devaluation of the currency. We were afraid that people would be more careful with spending, especially with leisure. However, we see that figures are very good and even better than last year. For the next year we have some technical goals. We want to expand and create new slopes. For 2015 we want to concentrate on increasing Shymbulak's presence in international markets. We want to create more tourism packages and cooperate with hotels and airlines in order to start international marketing. We are already working with Air Astana, and there are already many comfortable direct flights from Almaty to many cities. For many countries, a visa is no longer needed to come to Kazakhstan, and we are seeing the effects of this reform.
© The Business Year - March 2015