Popular tourist destinations, including Shymbulak and Charyn Canyon, off limits for foreigners in Kazakhstan21 july 2015, 16:24
On April 16, 2014 the Government of Kazakhstan issued a decree On Establishment of Limits of the Borderland, Quarantine Strip and Border Area. The document widens the special regime belt of near-border territory along Kazakhstan's border. Foreigners now require a special path to visit the area, Tengrinews reports.
Kazakhstan borders on 5 countries - China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - on land and also has a water border in the Caspian Sea in the west.
The newly established belt along Kazakhstan's border with Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will be 25 kilometers wide. The near-border belt with China will cover the entire territory of all the regions of Kazakhstan directly adjacent to the Chinese border - there are 8 such regions in Kazakhstan's Almaty Olbast and 5 such regions in its Eastern-Kazakhstan Oblast. The belt along the Caspian Sea will stretch 25 kilometers from the shoreline.
As a result, several very popular tourist destinations of Kazakhstan, including Big Almaty Lake, Medeo high altitude skating rink, Shymbulak skiing resort, Lake Alakol, Kolsay Lakes and Charyn Canyon ended up being part of the near-border strip. To get there foreign tourists now have to obtain a special permit from designated authorities, Tengrinews reports citing the Chairperson of Kazakhstan’s Tourist Association Rashida Shaikenova as saying at a press conference.
She called the new restrictions a "cultural shock”.
“We are talking about developing domestic and inbound tourism. The president introduced a visa-free regime for citizens of 19 countries. This is a very good step. But now we have a problem: foreign tourists have to obtain passes to visit places like Lake Alakol and Big Almaty Lake. And to do that they have to wait around 10 days after applying. We are working with law enforcement authorities to reduce the waiting time. But the mere fact that permits are needed creates even a greater problem then the waiting time and application documents,” Shaikenova said.
“We have applied to the Tourism Committee requesting them to deal with the situation, but it takes time. During this entire season less tourists will be able to visit these places,” she continued.
Kazakhstan citizens are not subject to the restrictions or required to obtain the permits, but they need to carry their IDs when visiting the near-border area.
"A big group of foreign tourists was very upset on the social media over the fact that after buying tickets they learned that Shymbulak and Medeo along with other sights of the Almaty region fell under the so called boarder control zone," Director of Shymbulak skiing resort Yerzhan Yerkinbayev said.
According to Yerkinbayev, the new regulation contradicted the government's policies of tourism development in Kazakhstan.
Shymbulak resort located in less then an hour's drive from Almaty city is experiencing a decrease in the number of foreign visitors. "Certainly, there may be other reasons behind this as well. It is summer and people travel to other places. But we see that the number of foreigners has gone down. Our phones are constantly ringing. People want us to explain the new rules and express their indignation. If it continues the same way, we will need to persuade the officials to change the rules or find a solution for this issue. Maybe this new requirement has a logical explanation, but we do not see it," Yerkinbayev said.
Karlygash Makatova, a local tour guide, also said she witnessed a number of incidents related to the new rules. In one of the them a foreign diplomat was fined near the Big Almaty Lake.
"It was very unpleasant for the diplomat. The new regulation was not widely publicized, and there were no signboards saying that new rules were in place. My foreign friends called me and said that they were stopped at the Charyn Canyon and fined," the guide said.
Kazakhstan recently extended the number of countries that enjoy visa free regime and it was completely irrational to limit access to the most popular destinations in the country for foreigners, she continued.
Acting Director of the Tourism Department of Kazakhstan's Ministry of Investments and Development Timur Duisengaliyev assured the issue with the tourist sites in the border area would be resolved in a month and a half time.
“These problems do have a negative impact on the image (of Kazakhstan). If someone who is in Kazakhstan for an event wants to visit a place like Charyn Kanyon during their stay, they have to apply to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to obtain a permit at least 7 days before the scheduled trip. It is not a dead end, everything can be solved. But it is inconvenient,” Duisengaliyev said.
The Tourism Department has already prepared a document exempting the popular tourist sites from the pass-holders-only area and making them easily accessible for foreigners again.
“On June 15 this year, the document got all the approvals from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, local executive authorities and NGOs. Currently, it is awaiting the approval of the country’s Prime-Minister. (…) We expect the issue to be resolved within a month or a month and a half. It will return the tourist zones back to the regular regime with no special passes required,” he said.
By Assel Satubaldina, Gyuzel Kamalova and Tatyana Kuzmina (reporting by Roza Yesenkulova, Aidana Ussupova and Vladimir Prokopenko)