In the late 1990s someone in Kyrgyzstan had a genius idea: since the country’s industry base and agricultural sector had been decimated after the fall of the soviet union, why not start thinking about tourism? More specifically, why not get whole communities involved?
And so was born Community Based Tourism (CBT), and later, competitors Shepherd’s Life and Jailoo.
I got to know CBT first in Arslanbob, a lovely little town with a raft of outdoorsy things to do, through its energetic coordinator Hayat Tarikov.
It is due to Hayat that CBT arrived in Arslanbob in 2001. After a career as a forestry engineer in the local walnut forest (the largest in the world at 60,000 hectares) he hankered for something more. Setting up a tourism business that got people in the township of 13,000 involved was just the way to indulge his love of the outdoors.
Hayat is an interesting character. He saw the potential in Arslanbob for eco-tourism after doing some part time guiding in local mountains. He began with easy walks and horse rides into the forest, up to a waterfall overlookingy the valley, and to the Ibn Abbas shrine high above the township. Later, with some help from a Swiss mountaineer, the CBT included a climb up to the Babash-Ata peak (4427m), the highest in the Fergana Range, as well as fishing and a week-long horse trek to the Holy Lake on the other side of the range.
Eighteen local families provide homestays – a comfy, slightly more expensive alternative to the Soviet ‘retreat’ up the hill. They ban the vodka but thankfully also silence the terrible Russian pop music that blares on repeat long into the night at the retreat.
It’s an interesting way to get a handle on the conservative community. I stayed at a homestay run by one of Hayat’s sisters. She was one of the first to get on board and her son, Almaz, is a guide with CBT. It’s a full house of Hayat’s sister and her husband, their son Almaz, his young wife Gulseva and their baby girl Fatima; a nephew and a niece from up the road have the run of the property.
The long drop toilet is outside, as is the shower – hot, when a small child is sent up a ladder with a bucket of hot water to fill the rooftop tank. A potato and garlic garden takes up most of the free space and apple and plum trees hang at the edges.
One of Hayat’s goals is to get every homestay insulated and with indoor toilets and showers to build on Arslanbob’s nascent skiing reputation. As it is, three guides (including Hayat) know how to ski well enough to take tourists up to the high summer pastures in the mountains that for a backdrop to the valley, thanks to a Norwegian skier who, last winter, took the guides on an intensive two months of daily skiing (those who didn’t decide early on that they hated skiing, anyway).
The powder is best in January and February and there are learner slopes (although they do require a steep cross country ski up a steep hill to get to) and more technical ones in the mountains.
But aside from the beautiful scenery, what is really interesting to see is that the influx of western tourists with large sums of western cash hasn’t turned Arslanbob into a theme park. Children don’t beg for lollies or money in exchange for photos, and adults tend not to view foreigners as ATM machines. This is tourism done well, involving the whole community instead of forcing it to reap peripheral benefits.
The guides are good at what they do and Hayat is fully aware that if they don’t treat tourists well, they won’t come back. He encourages people to buy the services of his guides, because that is what CBT is about, but understands when people choose to go it alone. In other places in Kyrgyzstan, such as Kochkor, this is not the case as CBT people employ hard sell tactics and provide deliberately minimal information in order to force tourists into buying their product.
Hayat’s latest plan is to start mountain bike tours, and the future may involve rafting and rock climbing. But at the moment, with the summer season upon them and winter starting to become busier as keen skiers drop in from Europe, America and Australiasia, the Arslanbob CBT is busy managing the interest it’s getting now.