International hospitality firms have recently been quietly stepping up their efforts in Central Asia, with a push in Kazakhstan in particular. Hyatt Hotels opened a new Hyatt Regency Hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan this year. Hilton has also signaled that it will be opening two hotels in Kazakhstan, in Almaty and Astana. The most prominent new hotel to open in Kazakhstan is the new, ultra-luxury Ritz-Carlton Astana.
This is not to say that luxury hospitality offerings in Central Asia are an entirely new phenomenon. Many of the region’s large cities have had such options available for some time, Uzbekistan in particular stands out in this regard. Tashkent and Samarkand have a myriad of luxury hotel offerings and Hyatt recently opened a new state-of-the-art location in Tashkent.
However, this expansion in Kazakhstan illustrates that international firms are anticipating a potential boom in Chinese high net worth individual travel to the region with the ramping up of Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
BRI is an economic integration project designed to improved infrastructure and lower barriers to Eurasian trade. More wealthy Chinese travelers will undoubtedly being coming to Central Asia and other regions included in the initiative.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are taking the lead in the region in reaching out to Beijing to boost economic ties and travel, but they are certainly not alone. Overall, it signals a major shift in the overall global tourism industry that is directly related to China’s economic and political rise and is spurring previously ignored destinations to improve their travel options and infrastructure to accommodate wealthy Chinese travelers.
However, much of the new potential travel to Central Asia resulting from BRI will be spurred by business travel and not necessarily by leisure tourism. This is likely what is influencing new international interest on the part of hospitality firms in the region.
That’s not to say that Chinese tourism to Central Asia won’t pick up or that governments in the region aren’t banking on it.
Dr. Parag Khanna at the National University of Singapore remarked in an interview with Jing Daily this past summer, “I could really imagine, especially in the two biggest countries in that part of the world, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have and are building very good infrastructure, have plenty of hotels. They could easily manage, like literally way more than 20 to 30 times the number tourists they now get.”
Uzbekistan reached an agreement with China to boost bilateral tourism cooperation this year. This agreement focused on easing visa restrictions and ensuring ease of access of tour groups. Uzbekistan’s tourism authorities hope to boost ecotourism and mountain tourism in particular, but also want to expand tourism offerings in general. Aside from visas, ease of bankcard use and increasing the number of Chinese-speaking tourism workers is also key to these efforts.
Kazakhstan has been stepping up tourism cooperation efforts as well. In April, 2017 was declared the official year of Chinese tourism in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Additionally, Air Astana organized a Beijing event with over 80 travel agency and press representatives. The airline hopes to address deficiencies in local Kazakh tourist infrastructure by stepping Beijing-Kazakhstan flights and providing Chinese-language tour guides and general assistance to visitors.
Will these efforts help put Central Asia on the map for Chinese tourists? Only time will tell, but it is clear that everyone involved expects an increase of Chinese travel of some kind.