Kazakhstan 2018 | TOURISM | REVIEW

Kazakhstan has plans to grow its tourism industry to 8% of GDP by 2025 by increasing its presence in the Chinese market and improving hospitality infrastructure

Tourism is a relatively small part of Kazakhstan's economy, accounting for just 1.6% of GDP in 2016 according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), but officials and industry leaders believe that Kazakhstan can become a key destination for Asian and Russian travelers. Development plans call for tourism's share of GDP to rise to 8% by 2025, and the country is embarking on a marketing push to increase awareness of Kazakhstan's offerings. Industry leaders believe that Kazakhstan's natural resources, winter sports, and cultural heritage offerings can become international draws and are working on improving its transport and hospitality infrastructure to provide services on par with the world's best.

Currently, one of the largest obstacles in the tourism industry is a lack of adequate infrastructure. The WEF's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Kazakhstan 81st out of 136 countries in its 2017 edition, with the country's ground tourist service infrastructure both worse than 90th. More than half of Kazakhstan's 1,770 hotels do not have a star ranking, and low occupancy rates create a vicious cycle of substandard quality and decreased international attention. Kazakhstan also lacks any substantial tour guide industry aimed at organizing trips for outsiders; the domestic travel industry focuses almost entirely on outgoing trips. It should come as no surprise, then, that international tourism in Kazakhstan has been sluggish. Though the number of foreign arrivals has risen to 6.5 million visitors as of 2016, only 1% of those visits are due to tourism. The majority of these international visitors came from fellow former-Soviet states Russia and Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan's strategy to grow its tourism sector fivefold in less than a decade has three main components. First, the country wants to develop comprehensive tourist offerings that take advantage of its natural beauty and millions of square miles of land area. Secondly, it wants to improve hospitality infrastructure to provide the services that international travelers expect. Finally, it wants to increase its marketing presence in the Russian and Chinese markets to build connections with these key populations.

Industry tourism leaders believe that the country's natural attractions will differentiate it from other destinations. What matters is not the number of destinations but the quality and uniqueness of a country's offerings. For Kazakhstan, that means highlighting its outdoor tourism options. The nation's tourism efforts for 2018 are expected to center around Kazakhstan's reputation as the “Great Steppe" country, with trips designed around the country's mountain ranges and the geography of the ancient Silk Road. Outdoorsman activities such as hiking, hunting, and fishing are all expected to be featured prominently in the nation's offerings. Though Kazakhstan's urban centers are developing a more cosmopolitan reputation—more than 3.8 million people visited Expo 2017 in Astana, and Almaty has become a growing hub for winter sports and fashion—its ecotourism and outdoor offerings are still its best draw at this point in time.

To ensure that foreign visitors receive the accommodations they expect, Kazakhstan is investing in hospitality infrastructure to bring preexisting hotels up to global standards and increase the ease of electronic access to information. Almaty and Astana international airports have recently undergone expansions designed to make them more connected hubs for global travel, and officials are working on improving the rest of the nation's infrastructure and logistics chain up to par. At the same time, they are also increasing their marketing presence in markets with the potential for significant growth, with China the most prominent example. The historical Silk Road links with the world's largest country by population provide a natural starting point for cultural attractions, and Kazakhstan's proximity and close political relationship with China gives it the potential for further development. In 2017, the government introduced visa-free travel for Chinese citizens; the program proved popular enough that it has since been extended through 2018.