Kazakhstan's rich future
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Kazakhstan's rich future

Kazakhstan's rich future

In Almaty's Panfilov Park, rock-granite jaws jut defiantly out of a fearsome bronze monument commemorating soldiers in the Great Patriotic War. In this new post-Soviet era of peace and oil prosperity, it is a reminder of Kazakhstan's turbulent past. But Kazakhstan's future lies in its vast reserves of oil and natural gas.

    Over 2.7bn tonnes of petroleum lie under the shores of the Caspian Sea. Still largely undeveloped - most crude is sent to Russia for refining - the country's nascent wealth is attracting hordes of international businesses.

    Kazakhstan covers an area of 2.7m sq km, making it the ninth largest country in the world. It has a hugely varied landscape from mountains and glaciers to steppe and desert, with many national parks.

    Almaty, though not the country's capital, is its business capital. It is Kazakhstan's largest city and the undisputed face of the drive to modernise. Its mostly drab Soviet-style buildings are gradually being overtaken by modern glass-fronted structures. Wide tree-lined roads and large areas of green space and parks, together with the towering backdrop of the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau mountain range, give visions of a modern European city.

    Mushrooming hotels

    Five-star hotels are starting to mushroom to cope with the hordes of international oilmen that arrive by the day. With such high demand for rooms, prices mirror those in any Western capital, but so does the service and the standard of accommodation. Almaty currently has just 600 five-star hotel rooms and 2,000 3-4 star rooms, but many more hotels are in the pipeline. A new convention centre is being built behind the five-star Hyatt Regency.

    While visitors are most likely to come on business, the country has huge potential as a tourist destination, if political resolve is maintained. Rustem Nurgazinov, department head of the Ministry of Sport and Tourism, says the government is serious about developing the infrastructure necessary to accommodate increased business and leisure visitors, including more hotels and upgraded transport systems.

    The growth of tourism in Kazakhstan is somewhat hampered by the visa situation. Nearly every nationality must apply well in advance for a visa, and many nationalities need a letter of invitation to get one. The government, under pressure from the tourism industry, is trying to open up, but the legacy of the closed Soviet days lingers on. There is talk of a possible Central Asian Schengen-style visa, but it won't be arriving in the short-term.

    Language is another issue, though here the situation is seeing much faster improvement. Five star hotels all have fluent English-speaking staff. The younger generation is learning English, and there are increasing amounts of shop signs and restaurant menus in English. For now though, non-Russian and Kazakh speakers wanting to venture out of their hotels will almost certainly need a tour guide.

    Sports and leisure

    But for the adventurous traveller with the patience to deal with embassies and applications and the courage to try out a few basic Russian phrases, Kazakhstan has plenty to offer - from hiking and climbing in towering mountain ranges to fishing and traditional hunting with birds of prey.

    The no-snow crisis in lower-altitude European ski resorts has come as an opportunity for Kazakhstan, with its colder climate and high altitude mountains. Almaty's Shymbaluk ski resort is located in the Zailiysky Alatau Mountains, around 25km from the city centre. It has a vertical drop of 900m from its highest point at 3163m, with a variety of runs. When we visited in the second week of December, there was plenty of snow and plenty of space. For the more adventurous, there is glacial skiing further into the range.

    The huge open air Medeu ice rink, spectacularly set into the mountain range below Shymbaluk, is designed for speed skating - having turned out numerous Olympic champions - and is open from November to March.

    Culture and wildlife

    Almaty does have a sprinkling of top-end fashion stores, but it's probably not going to be enough to lure luxury shopping vacationers away from Dubai, London and New York. Those seeking traditional goods and crafts will have a much richer experience. Traditional products include hand-woven carpets, shawls and bags, and fur hats and coats.

    The fur trade has sadly hunted some animals close to extinction, such as the beautiful snow leopard, one of Kazakhstan's national symbols and now fortunately a target for conservationists.

    Kazakhstan's wildlife is rich and diverse, with its birds of prey a draw for ornithologists and Arab falconers alike. The Kazakhs have traditionally used eagles, owls and hawks for hunting a variety of local game from foxes. The CYHKAP falcon farm gives hunting demonstrations and the chance to get close up and personal with some magnificent birds of prey. Eco-tourism is being given some serious attention, with an English-language website listing attractions and tour operators, at www.ecotourism.kz

    Cultural tourism is also starting to flourish. Yurts, the traditional circular tent homes of nomads, are being reinvented as restaurants and function rooms. Kazakhstan's national cuisine is based around lamb and horse meat, with pasta and rice, and a drink made of fermented mare's milk.

    Growth in business travel is assured; for those looking to take the "road less travelled" for adventure, get in before the secret's out.

    All visitors need to apply for a visa. Information can be found at the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs website: www.mfa.kz

    National carrier Air Astana flies daily between Dubai and Almaty: www.airastana.com. Dnata Agencies is general sales agent in Dubai

    AMEinfo Staff

    AMEinfo staff members report business news and views from across the Middle East and North Africa region, and analyse global events impacting the region today.

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