Eco-Tours in Kazakhstan?

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It seems the No. 1 movie over the weekend was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which faux-Kazakhstan traveller Borat makes fun of Americans who have no idea how people live in the rest of the world.

Strangely enough, the movie has stimulated curiousity about the actual country of Kazakhstan, and it turns out they already are working hard there to develop eco-tourism. The country has some beautiful natural areas, including Korgalzhyn, the world’s most northerly flamingo habitat. The southern mountain villages of Aksu-Zhabagly, Ugam and Lepsinsk, are jumping-off points for some of the most pristine wilderness you’ll find anywhere, says Lonely Planet. Excellent community eco-tourism programmes have been established in some of the most beautiful areas, enabling travellers to stay with village families at an affordable cost.

Travellers who have found their way to these remote accommodations report on the warmth of their welcome and how good it was to experience the Kazakh village life, says the official Kazakh Web site. “Many people when they come home from their holidays say that the best part of the experience was meeting the people,” the site says. “This is much easier to do if you are staying in their homes, meeting their families, and finding out about the local culture, rather than hidden away in a hotel…. There is nothing dull or worthy about sustainable tourism. We go on holiday to have a good time. Eco-tourism is what all tourism should be.”

It’s early days for eco-tourism in Kazakhstan — the project just began in 2005 — but already benefits are being felt. In Zhabagly, in Southern Kazakhstan, people who have visited more than once have noticed that the village looks cleaner, and that villagers are keen to try out their English language skills.

VSO, a UK-based volunteer group that sends professionals abroad for up to two years to help with local development projects, has also taken an interest in the eco-tourism project. VSO Kazakhstan works in three regions of the country — Almaty, Kostanai and Pavlodar. VSO volunteers are mostly working in small towns that act as district centres or hubs, from where their work can radiate out to impact more remote rural areas.

Work is focused on creating income opportunities for remote rural communities. Volunteers are working with the Ecotourism Information Resource Centre (which is the only tourist information center in the whole country), the Agency for Tourism, Business Development Foundations and local non-governmental organizations. Volunteers are helping local colleagues to develop project plans, networking opportunities and marketing activity. In addition, VSO facilitated a learning visit to Mongolia, which enabled Kazakhstani tourism workers to see firsthand how Mongolia has successfully developed its own eco-tourism industry.

Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe, but with a population of just 15 million. Much of the rural landscape is isolated and undeveloped. Do your part to dispel geo-dumbness, and go!

More info:
CIA World Factbook on Kazakhstan
Wikipedia
Kazakhstan.com, news.
An AP reporter <a href="goes to Kazakhstan for reaction to the film.

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