Bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China, Kyrgyzstan is a welcoming oasis in a remote, always fascinating, sometimes volatile, and oftentimes misunderstood part of the world. With an average elevation of 3,000m (9,840ft), and 30% of its landmass buried under permanent ice and snow, the country’s landscape and people are defined by a ruggedness utterly unique to the highlands of Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Today, native Kyrgyz make up around 70% of the country’s population, with the remaining percentage made up mostly of Uzbeks and Russians. Russian remains one of the country’s two official languages, but Kyrgyz is the main, and many times only, language spoken outside urban areas. In Kyrgyz culture, a family’s “wealth” is more so measured in the number of animals owned and tended rather than household income. Many Kyrgyz today follow the nomadic traditions of their ancestors, erecting hand-crafted yurts in jailoos - the high mountain pastures above their villages - where they graze their animals and live for the summer.
Tourism is a vastly important and well-supported industry in Kyrgyzstan. Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Swiss development organization, Helvetas, introduced the concept of community-based tourism as a means of stimulating jobs at the local level, especially in rural parts of the country. Today, the Kyrgyzstan Community Based Tourism Association (KCBTA) is a significant job producer, facilitating invaluable skills training for rural Kyrgyz families who are able to participate in the program by simply opening their homes and summer yurts to foreign tourists, and offering guided activities like horse trekking and trekking. However, KCBTA's programming falls short with winter-focused activities to continue drawing tourists year-round. Kyrgyzstan's winter tourism industry is primarily driven by a dozen or so ski resorts, a few heli and cat skiing operations, our friends down in Arslanbob who have successfully grown their own variety of winter offerings, and us at 40 Tribes. The idea is beginning to spread countrywide.
One of the biggest things holding back further development of Kyrgyzstan's tourism industry is that it remains a largely unknown and stigmatized country. This is especially true in North America, where people have either never heard of it, or associate it with the more volatile of the 'Stans. The reality is that Kyrgyz culture is a very hospitable one, tourists are well looked-after, and the Kyrgyz government has taken a very progressive approach to tourism, even implementing a 60-day visa-free policy for most nationalities in July 2012.