Tourism Development Case Study: Alay Region, Kyrgyzstan

Community Based Tourism and Adventure Travel

The following is a case study of our tourism development work in a rural, remote mountain region — featuring community tourism development and the international light/medium adventure travel target market. Our work consisted of marketing, destination development, promotion and operations advisory.

The results: growth in visitor numbers to support alternative local employment, income circulation in the local economy, and engaged travelers spending more time immersed in the local nature and culture. Moreover, what you see took very limited investment and only three years to accomplish. This is what effective cooperation and commercially viable results look like when donors, local tour operators, communities and Uncornered Market work together. 

Kyrgyzstan is considered an “off-the-beaten track” type of destination for most travelers, but the Alay Region in southern Kyrgyzstan is considered “offbeat” and remote even for Kyrgyzstan. In fact, most travel articles written about Kyrgyzstan these last years, including those “best places to visit” or “best countries” lists, usually focus on the traditional sites, treks and cities in the Issyk-Kul Region (Karakol, South Shore, Cholpon Ata), Naryn Region (Song Kul Lake and Tash Rabat), and Bishkek. This means that although the Alay Region offers some of the best trekking and opportunities to engage with local nomadic culture in the country most travelers have never heard of it.

Although Alay Region had many of the natural (e.g., the stunning Pamir-Alay Mountains) and cultural elements needed to make it a leading adventure travel destination in Kyrgyzstan, and Central Asia as a whole, it faced many tourism development challenges. However, the region does have a history with Community Based Tourism (CBT) and trust in its local representative in Osh, Visit Alay, the biggest tour operator in region responsible for the majority of tours and bookings. Its goals focus on the socio-economic benefits, cultural preservation and environmental conservation that tourism can bring by engaging local people.

Alay Region: Where Adventure Travel Meets Community Tourism

Alay Region, Kyrgyzstan Map

Where is the Alay Region?

The Alay Region is located in southern Kyrgyzstan between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. What we refer to here as the “Alay Region” is made up of Alay District and Chong Alay District, both located in Osh Region. The Pamir-Alay Mountain range goes through much of this remote mountainous region. It is also home to the northern section of the famous Pamir Highway (M-41) starting in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and continuing across the border to Khorog, Tajikistan.

Alay Region Tourism Development Goals

  • Increase in the number of visitors average length of stay, and average daily spend. This means creating products and services suited to mid-budget travelers who are willing to spend a little more for quality and comfort.
  • Increase the number of travelers booking tours and local services (e.g., guides, drivers, horsemen, etc.) in order to increase tourism’s contribution to the local economy.
  • Increase the awareness of the region as a leading adventure travel and trekking destination — not only in Kyrgyzstan, but throughout Central Asia.
  • Increase the number of people employed by or working in tourism.
  • Increate number of travelers from target markets of Europe and North America.

Alay Region Tourism Development Challenges

  • Limited tourism products and tour offerings, often with basic services and confusing pricing. Many travelers were budget independent travelers who did not book any tours or services resulting in low socio-economic impact.
  • Difficult to organize travel plans as not a lot of quality information available in English on possible experiences, tour companies, transportation, and transparent pricing.
  • Low awareness about the region as a tourism destination with some of the best treks in the country.
  • Quality and selection of accommodation (guest houses, yurt camps) was low, as well as it was difficult to easily book online or in advance.
  • Short summer travel season as the mountain passes are only clear for trekkers for a few months each summer.

Uncornered Market Advisory and Activities

  • USAID BGI Project (August-October 2017): Trail development to test three emerging trekking routes developed by Visit Alay to advise on commercially viability for target market (Europe and North America), marketing/positioning of these treks compared to others in Kyrgyzstan, website/SEO strategy for, and packaging the treks to fit adventure travel and target market demands and trends.
  • Alay Mountains Trekking Guide on (June 2018): Comprehensive and SEO-optimized trekking guide for the Alay Mountains to provide travelers with all the information they need to plan and organize a trek, and how to do so independently or with a local trekking agency (e.g., Visit Alay). Visit Alay credits this article and the social media work done around it with putting the Alay Mountains firmly on the Kyrgyzstan travel map and increasing sales of tours.
  • Marketing Strategy for Alay Region (January 2019), Helvetas Bai Alai Project: A comprehensive marketing strategy for the Alay Region, including how to differentiate and position the region's travel experiences, new adventure and cultural tourism product development, market access strategies for B2B and B2C sales, and SEO and content marketing strategies.
  • Product testing for new adventure and cultural travel products (August 2019), Helvetas Bai Alai Project: Building on the marketing strategy to test and provide feedback on existing and new trekking and cultural tour products. The goal: immerse travelers more in the Alay experience so that they better engage with and understand the unique culture, nature and history of where they are. In addition, to improve local services so they are more environmental, sustainable and hygienic. The resulting report was used by Visit Alay to improve its tours and services, and focus on strategic training of local family providers. Helvetas Bai Alai Project used the report recommendations to guide its 2nd year of tourism development project plans and activities.
  • Alay Region Experiential Guide (September 2019): Created from the field visit with Helvetas and Visit Alay to show the strategic positioning of the Alay Region (vis-a-vis other trekking and mountainous destinations in Kyrgyzstan), an overview of all possible travel experiences (e.g., from trekking to yurt stays), and how to easily plan and book travel.

Visit Alay and Bai Alai Project Activities

  • Hospitality training and investment in improving yurt camps and guest house services and facilities. Grants and loans to assist in buying additional yurts to house travelers or horses to deliver services.
  • Development of new multi-day trekking and horse back riding routes so that all accommodation along the trail could be provided by local families yurt camps. This provided more income earning opportunities for local families to provide sleeping and food services. In addition, it reduced the need to carry tents and camping gear along treks.
  • Partnerships with popular, trusted travel websites for the region (e.g., as a trusted tour operator and using OTAs (e.g., Viator/TripAdvisor) to sell directly to travelers.
  • Media and blogger trips to promote the region and gather photographic and other content to promote the Alay Region.

Impact and Results

Data and statistics from Visit Alay, 2017-2019.

Qualitative Socio-Economic Impacts: Stories of Local People

Local People Involved in Tourism
A yurt camp host family welcomes travelers at Sary-Oi Yurt Camp.

Additional Income for Families

Almost all of the yurt camps and guesthouses in the Alay Region are run by families so that the money from tourism stays local in the community. For example, in this case the family that runs Sary-Oi Yurt Camp in the lower Alay Mountains uses the money they earn from the summer months when they host trekkers on the Scenic Ak-Tor Pass Trek to help pay for the education of their five daughters, make improvements on their house in the village, and invest in their tourism business to help it grow.

Increasing Local Employment Opportunities

The family-run Peak Lenin Guesthouse in Sary Mogul opened their home to host tourists five years ago, starting with just four beds. Prior to this the husband was working in the nearby coal mines (one of the few places for employment in the area) and wanted to get out, to do something that connected with nature rather than something that made it dirtier. Then came idea to work in tourism, to share of the local nature and culture by hosting travelers. Today, their guesthouse can sleep up to 40 people and they have opened up a yurt camp by Tulpar Kol Lake. This results in jobs for about 20 people in the summer months, providing opportunity for young people to stay in the village than leave for the cities or Russia for work.

Alay Case Study, Local Economic Benefit
Husband and wife team behind Peak Lenin Guesthouse.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Pamir Yurt Camps in southern Kyrgyzstan
Horses being taken up to the high pastures to graze at a local yurt camp that also hosts travelers.

Preserving Local Nomadic Cultural Traditions

As part of the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture in the Alay Region families will move to the jailoo (high pasture) in the summer months where they live in yurts (traditional circular homes) and watch over their livestock grazing on the fresh high altitude grasses. Over the years fewer and fewer families were following this tradition as not enough money was being earned to justify the effort. An increase in tourism and interest by travelers to stay in yurts has provided additional money to families to encourage them to keep with this tradition. Several of the traditional yurt camps had added additional yurts where travelers can also stay and experience nomadic life for a day or two. The families are still able to take care of their animals and live on the jailoo for the summer months.

People Staying Local, Investing Local

Due to the lack of jobs and economic opportunities in the Alay Region many men leave the village to find work in Russia to support their families. In the last years many of the trekking and horse guides from Sary Mogul and other villages have been able earn enough from tourism to avoid going to Russia. In addition, they have been able to invest that money into buying more horses and land to support their families.

Trekking in the Alay Mountains, Kyrgyzstan - Trekking Guides and Support
Local trekking and horse guides in the Alay Region.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Eating in a Yurt - Southern Kyrgyzstan
A trekking guide uses the summer break from university to earn money and improve foreign language skills.

Guides Earning Money for University

Many of the trekking guides that work in the Alay Region are university students in Osh. They are able to earn enough money from guiding tourists in the summer months to pay for their university tuition, accommodation, food, books and supplies, as well as many are able to send money home to their families in smaller villages. In addition, they are able to practice and improve their English (or other foreign language), thereby providing them with valuable job skills for when they leave university and look for jobs either in tourism or in other sectors.

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