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Kazakhstan 2014 | TOURISM & RETAIL | REVIEW: TOURISM

Kazakhstan is quickly making a name for itself as a niche destination with something for every discerning tourist.

Kazakhstan's visitor numbers are on the up, a keen example of international promotion paying dividends in tourism receipts. From the cultural pursuits of Almaty to the majestic Tian Shan mountains, Kazakhstan is the perfect stop off the beaten track.

The country surprised tourism observers in 2013, with international arrivals growing by 21.9%, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a figure that's expected to hit 6.07 million in 2014, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), mainly on the back of the country's prime location to attract guests from Russia and China. The WTTC also reports that the direct contribution of travel and tourism to GDP was KZT533.2 billion ($3.40 billion), or 1.6% of total GDP, in 2013, while the total contribution was KZT1.745 trillion ($11.16 billion), or 5.3% of GDP. In employment terms, the industry supported 137,500 jobs directly in 2013, or 1.6% of total employment, while the total contribution was 424,000 jobs, or 5% of the total. And visitors do like to spend, with international arrivals dropping a total KZT257.3 billion ($1.64 billion) in 2013. The government is keen to see Kazakhstan's fortunes continue in the tourism industry, with total travel and tourism investment in 2013 coming in at KZT370.8 billion ($2.37 billion), or 5.2% of the total investment made in the country over the year. Out of 184 countries, these indicators put Kazakhstan 58th in terms of the overall size of the travel and tourism industry, 149th in relative size to GDP, 108th in terms of the 2014 growth forecast, and 69th in terms of long-term growth up to 2024, according to the WTC.

And by 2024, we will certainly still be talking indicators, when travel and tourism is expected to make a direct contribution to GDP of KZT911.2 billion, or 1.5% of GDP; total GDP contribution is expected to rise to KZT2.91 trillion, or 4.8% of GDP; direct employment is expected to hit 198,000 jobs, or 2.2% of the total; overall employment is expected to reach 472,000 jobs, or 5.2% of the total; international visitors are expected to spend KZT355.2 billion; and investment is expected to rise 5.7% per annum to reach KZT661 billion in 2024, or 5.2% of the total.

In other figures, there were 92,053 beds in the hospitality sector as of end-2013, up on 83,103 at end-2012 and 81,015 at end-2011. With the country becoming an emerging hub for business in Central Asia, leisure spending dominates business spending 85.8% to 14.2% as a share of direct tourism and travel GDP in 2013, or KZT905.2 billion ($5.78 billion) and KZT150.1 billion ($958 million), respectively. In 2014, WWTC expects leisure spending to grow by 4.8% to KZT948.5 billion, while suggesting that the figure will reach KZT275 billion in 2024. Business travel spending, on the other hand, is expected to grow 6.1% to KZT159.3 billion in 2014, reaching KZT275 billion in 2024.

Kazakhstanis are also keen domestic travellers, accounting for 75.6% of direct travel and tourism GDP in 2013 compared to 24.4% for international arrivals. And the sector is expected to expand, according to the WTTC, growing 6.7% in 2014 to KZT851.9 billion, later reaching KZT1.5 trillion come 2024.

EXPO 2017

In 2012, the International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE) selected Astana to host World Expo 2017, the first time the event will be held in a former Soviet country. For the tourism sector, Astana's victory constitutes quite a boon—it is expected that between 2 million and 3 million people will descend on Kazakhstan during the event. The capital is now looking to build a series of new hotels and resorts in order to prepare for the increased attention, while President Nazarbayev has also announced that new roadside services will be built along tourist routes.

PLAN AHEAD

As well as plans for World Expo 2017, the government set out its plans to develop the tourism sector in May 2013 at the Astana Economic Forum, with a special focus on the west of the country, including the Caspian Sea coast. As part of the plan, which will run through to 2020, modern resorts will be built around Katon-Karagay, the Bukhtarma River, and the Western Altai mountains in East Kazakhstan, while Almaty will be further developed as a city destination—it already boasts several museums, an opera house, and the colorful Zenkov Cathedral—and ski resorts will be built in the surrounding areas. A further tourism cluster will also be developed in the south of the country along the historic Silk Road, with a special focus on cultural sightseeing.

The overall plan hopes to put Kazakhstan among the top 50 or 60 tourism destinations by volume by 2020, a path the country has already set out upon. In 2013, the country hosted the Kazakhstan International Tourism Exhibition in Almaty and the annual Astana Leisure 2013 exhibition, both symbolic of the country's ambitious targets. The capital itself is also growing in popularity, pulling in over half a million visitors in 2012, over one-fifth of whom were international arrivals. This was up 40,000 on the previous year, suggesting that Expo 2017 will only boost what is already a growing tourist magnet.

WHAT TO DO

In such a large country, there is plenty to get through for visitors, beginning in the capital with the Bayterek Tower, designed by Norman Foster. Representing a poplar tree holding a golden egg, the structure rises 105 meters into the sky, with the observation deck perched 97 meters above ground, symbolic of the year Astana became the capital—1997. Elsewhere in the capital, the Nur-Astana Mosque is the largest mosque in the country and was opened in 2008. The stunning design is unique, with four minarets at a height of 62 meters each. The capital's Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is also significant in the capital, and was opened in 2006 to host the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Containing facilities for all major religions, as well as an opera house, museum of culture, and library, and research center, the 62-meter pyramid has quickly become iconic. Before leaving, guests should also be sure to see the Ak Orda Presidential Palace, the workplace of the President of Kazakhstan. Opened in 2004, the imposing building is symbolic of the capital's ambition.

But if all things rural are more your style, the Sharyn Canyon is a tempting offer. Close to the Chinese border, the canyon is 80 kilometers in length and forms a part of the Sharyn National Park. Up to 300 meters deep, its imposing appearance in the Tian Shan mountain range is enticing for nature tourists. Coming back to the city, and 200 kilometers west of the Sharyn Canyon, Almaty is one of the country's most popular urban destinations. In an area that has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, there's certainly enough history to keep the casual visitor entertained. One such gem is the Zenkov Cathedral, a functioning Russian Orthodox church that was built in 1904. The Central Mosque is also well worth a visit, although, despite its Timurid appearance, was only completed in 1993. And for those that hankered after space camp as youngsters, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and its museum, is well worth a trip. Currently used to launch all manned Russian spaceflights, the facility was built in Soviet times and is now leased to the Russian government for use. Both Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft in history, were launched from Baikonur, making the site a must visit for space enthusiasts.

Kazakhstan's tourism ambition knows no bounds, and Expo 2017 is the icing on the cake. Kazakhstan is now certainly able to showcase itself as a leisure and business destination.