Konstantin Bondarenko: Removing administrative barriers will help the development of tourism in Tajikistan
“Despite the rich tradition of hospitality, there is still a lack of entrepreneurial culture in Tajikistan… The combination of traditional content – flavor of culture or peculiarities of the national cuisine – but served in a more modern “package” suitable for foreigners may be a key factor for success”, economist Konstantin Bondarenko discusses the problems in the tourism sector in an article written exclusively for CABAR.asia.
According to official data of the Committee on Youth, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Tajikistan, over 400 thousand tourists visited the country in 2015. But in fact, according to some industry experts, these numbers are exaggerated and do not reflect the real picture.
Despite the fact that official statistics on the increase in the flow of tourists to Tajikistan and prospects of development of the tourism industry cause doubt, the area of provision of tourist services can become one of the most profitable sectors of the Tajik economy. Of course, some obstacles to tourism development are beyond the control of the government, to take measures that will significantly improve the situation in this sphere.
An analysis of the facts and expert reviews obtained during the investigation made by PO “Center for free market of Tajikistan”, which laid the basis for this article, show the negative impact of existing administrative barriers and some bureaucratic requirements.
In particular, attention should be paid to the analysis of visa policy, the current system of special permits, registration, licensing and other administrative issues affecting the development of tourism.
Bureaucracy and spy mania
The situation with the visa and permit policy in Tajikistan continues to be difficult due to many bureaucratic delays. Of course, there is already some progress in this direction. So, at this moment in Tajikistan, there operates a simplified visa regime with 88 countries of the world. Making and receiving visas are possible not only in embassies, but also in the airports of Dushanbe and Khujand, and their cost is low and is equivalent to 25 US dollars.
Visa-free regime applies only to citizens of the ten CIS countries (except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). But there is another requirement for them – mandatory registration within three days in the Department of Visas and Registration (DVR). Only citizens of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan enjoy benefits in this case. They can stay on the territory of Tajikistan without registration during 30 days and 60 days, respectively.
Meanwhile, the mandatory registration requirement is debatable, since foreigners should be “attached” to a particular place – a hotel or a private address, without solving any real problems, and being, in fact, an unnecessary formality. Its tight time frame is especially controversial. In many neighboring countries, this requirement applies only for those foreign nationals who intend to stay in the country for a period of longer than one month. For tourists who come for a few days, it is usually not required.
At the same time, citizens of the countries who visit Tajikistan with visa do not register in the Visa and Registration for Foreigners Office. As a result, it is not clear for whom it is easier to come into the country – who those who must get a visa or for those who, in fact, come under the simplified visa-free regime, but who need to get registered.
Another example of a significant conservatism is the principle of reciprocity of visa policy, which the government follows. Tajik authorities simplify visa regime or is ready to abolish it for only those countries that have taken similar steps with respect to the citizens of Tajikistan. Meanwhile, the experience of other countries shows that in order to attract tourists to the country, it is much more effective to give up the principle “you do for me, I do for you”. The government should not put it across bureaucrats in other countries for the inconvenience that Tajik nationals may experience abroad. If the policy of another country is not openly unfriendly, or the country is not the source of terrorist threat, the use of visa for its citizens does not solve security problems. On the contrary, it is more a barrier.
The problem, complicating the arrival of foreign nationals in the country, is the fact that they must get a Tajik visa, mainly, in the traditional way – in the embassies of Tajikistan abroad. But there are few Tajik embassies, and there they are not in all countries. To obtain a visa, it usually takes two visits to the embassy in person – to fill in the questionnaire, and then to get a passport with visa. It is difficult and problematic, because the Embassy is only in capitals.
The opportunity to obtain a visa on arrival at the airport mitigates, but does not completely solve the problem. The fact is that many foreigners and, above all, tourists come to Tajikistan through not the air gates, but by land – by car, bike or even on foot, crossing the borders of neighboring countries. Many tourists, thus saving money, time or following a pre-planned itinerary, visit several countries in the region. It turns out that crossing the Tajik border, for example, from the neighboring Kyrgyzstan, tourists cannot get Tajik visa at the border checkpoint. Furthermore, in Tajikistan, there is no common database connection with all checkpoints, and there is no system of electronic visas. Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, tourists from many countries do not need visa.
Quite controversial is also a special kind of permission required to visit Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, as a border area. Meanwhile, closing the access to the Pamirs for tourists will actually close the access to Tajikistan, since most of the tourists head exactly there.
In recent years, foreigners have not been allowed visiting this region even during certain periods. Such authorization is perceived by tourists as a separate internal visa and makes them puzzled. Although it is inexpensive, 20 somoni (about $ 2.5), not all the tourists are aware of the details, which allows travel agents to make profits on this by charging $ 50 for intermediary services.
On the other hand, it carries additional risks for travel agencies themselves, as the arbitrary nature of the issuance of special permits can cause real problems when, for any reason, the permits for the Pamirs are no longer issued. Then, the travel agency may incur tangible costs – including payments for the hotel and catering of a customer, if he or she does not agree on an alternative tour and wants to wait for the moment when the permits are issued again.
Some experts justify permits with safety problems. They use the example of Lake Sarez – dangerous and difficult places, where there are no roads, no infrastructure, and in the event of an accident, the Emergency Situations Ministry rescuers cannot quickly help tourists. However, it should be noted that permits to visit this territory do not affect the solution of such problems. During their stay in a border or dangerous area, foreigners are not provided with any additional guarantees. They are charged money to get permission, but they travel at their own risk.
Talking about visas and permits, as a way to officially earn on foreigners coming to the country, is illogical. The government’s aim should be not to sell “entrance tickets” but to maximize the inflow of tourists and provide safety conditions of their stay in the country. Then the general economic impact will exceed the earnings of the issuance of visas and permits.
Therefore, the validity of the arguments in favor of maintaining the visas and special permits is controversial, and the main reason for their existence are stable stereotypes in the minds of public servants, who still share an idea of foreigners as spies or smugglers exporting the country’s natural resources. But even if we assume that such fears are not groundless, it is unclear how visas, registration in the Visa and Registration office or special permission to travel to the Pamirs can solve this problem. Giving out hundreds of thousands of visas a year, it is impossible to closely monitor all incoming foreigners. After all, airline tickets, hotel reservations and travel agencies invitations for an ordinary tourist are no different from documents of a person having criminal intentions. There should be other tools for such control.
Another significant reason, because of which access to Tajikistan for foreign tourists is difficult, is the limited flight connections and the high cost of tickets. If a tourist decides to visit Tajikistan, he or she often cannot find direct ways to reach the destination. Tajikistan does not have direct air links with so many countries, from which the main stream of tourists comes to the country.
The privileged position of the local airlines (and in fact hidden monopoly) on the market of passenger traffic hinders the development of the tourism industry of the country. For example, the air travel Berlin-Dushanbe-Berlin can be carried out only in transit through third countries, and it will cost more than $ 1,000. At the same time, a similar flight from Bishkek and back costs about 500-600 US dollars.
Foreign tourists deciding to travel evaluate such basic factors, as price and route. In this situation, the approach of “closed” sky makes Tajikistan less competitive compared to neighboring countries, access to which is much cheaper and more open.
Competitors on alert
In assessing one’s own successes to facilitate access to the country, it is important to know the successes of neighbors in that field. Tourism is an area where more courageous steps of neighboring countries in this regard can reset the result of any “simplifications”.
For example, the nearest neighbors in the region, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, have markedly improved the situation in the field of tourism, introducing a visa-free regime for major developed countries that are suppliers of tourists. In addition, they have allowed a more open competition in the field of air traffic, allowing new airlines to come to the market, which improved the service and led to lower prices.
According to the experts of the tourism industry (the Tourist association, based on communities), after Kyrgyzstan abolished visas for 45 countries, the flow of tourists has increased by more than 40%, which amounted to about 300 000 additional tourist visits per year. This figure is close to the number of foreigners arriving in Tajikistan during one year.
For most tourists, especially for those who previously never visited the countries of the region, there are no fundamental preferences between countries. Therefore, the same Kyrgyzstan, which has a similar nature but is more open to foreigners and has a developed tourist infrastructure, it looks more attractive.
Kyrgyzstan’s openness gives it a certain competitive advantage over other countries in the region, first of all, over Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyz tour operators successfully compete with Kazakh tourism industry, thanks to lower prices. Issyk-Kul Lake has long been a hallmark of the country. The level of service in Kyrgyzstan is much higher, tour guides and staff speak foreign languages, and there are cheap transport links – both airfare and road transport in the country. It contributes to the fact that foreigners prefer to visit this country. For instance, the average rent for a car for long-distance trips in Tajikistan costs about one dollar per kilometer, while in Kyrgyzstan, this amount is 45 cents.
Kyrgyz tour operators work so successfully that they even began to pose a particular threat to their colleagues in the Tajik market. So Kyrgyz guides and travel agents speak about the notorious permission to travel to the Pamirs as a necessary barrier, which prevents them from working on the territory of Tajikistan. Even under the current system, the Kyrgyz firms have found a way out and offer tours to visit the Pamir and other regions of Tajikistan, competing with Tajik tour operators.
In the end, the origin of a travel company has no influence on the willingness of foreign tourists to spend their money because it is fun to visit Tajikistan. Tajik tour operators could also work in Kyrgyzstan.
In the meantime, we should recognize that the active neighbors “intercept” a part of the flow of tourists in a closed Tajikistan and have the corresponding advantages.
The service does not meet standards
The low level of development of services in addition to the above problems causes frustration of foreign tourists who come to Tajikistan. The survey showed that guides accompanying the tourists traveling through the country spoke exactly about this drawback. According to them, many tourists know that in Tajikistan, there are poverty, bureaucracy and corruption, as well as infrastructure problems. However, the absence of many basic conditions shocks travelers, above all, poor hygiene and unsanitary conditions in places of public catering and common areas.
Problems with sanitation are critical because they scare, in the first place, the tourists who appreciate comfort. This category of tourists, albeit few in number, is the most attractive for the industry. Wealthy foreigners who are able to spend 100 or more dollars a day are ready to do so if provided with acceptable conditions.
The problem of sanitation is added to the poor quality of cooking in many regions and poor menu. If the Tajiks themselves are inclined to consider their traditional cuisine a matter of pride, it is considered by many travelers as heavy and monotonous food. Visiting guests can find only the same meat dishes that many foreigners do not eat.
So, despite the rich tradition of hospitality, there is still a lack of entrepreneurial culture in Tajikistan. This refers to the inability of many entrepreneurs to look at the services they provide through the eyes of their clients. The habit to focus on their own idea of the quality and choice of priorities are the remnants of the local business mentality. Meanwhile, the combination of traditional content – flavor of culture or peculiarities of the national cuisine – but served in a more modern “package” suitable for foreigners may be a key factor for success.
Of course, the views of the appropriateness of certain measures restricting the entry of foreigners differ among different stakeholders. Those who work directly with tourists, i.e. majority of the private tourism business, note the problem of access to the country and consider it a legacy of the past, an anachronism, which has negative consequences for the image of Tajikistan, as a tourist destination.
Experts from government agencies and some representatives of international organizations do not consider it a key problem. In their view, tourists who have visited Tajikistan are ready to face difficulties, because they already know what can happen in the country.
However, as it turned out in the course of collecting information from travel forums, for those foreigners who have not yet decided to visit Tajikistan, these administrative restrictions are relevant. And this group of potential visitors is quite numerous. Many foreigners prefer tours that include multiple countries, and if at some point of their route, there are extra and strange obstacles for them, their route is easily changed, omitting Tajikistan.
We should also speak of a large group of tourists, the so-called “low-budget” travelers. They spend much less money, live in cheap hotels or private homes, and in warm periods, sometimes stay even in tents. But they are attracted by natural and geographic features of Tajikistan, and they are ready for certain inconveniences. For this category of tourists, the access to the country plays an important role. They are afraid of the high cost of air travel to Tajikistan, difficulties in obtaining visas, permits and registration, as well as the need to pay more for their issuance to travel companies.
Tourists are actively sharing in social networks and forums their impressions, often negative. It is a marketing law, when one satisfied customer shares his impressions with two or three other people, but a dissatisfied customer – with at least six other people. Therefore, the advertising video clip “Tajikistan – feel the friendship” created by the government [i] is a good initiative, but it is a less effective tool in terms of the impact on the decision-making on visiting Tajikistan, in comparison with reviews of tourists.
Of course, the opening of a new terminal of the international airport in Dushanbe positively contributes to the image of Tajikistan, but since the solution of infrastructure problems takes time and large investment, and improvement of the service requires serious changes in mentality and entrepreneurial culture, the priority of the state policy in terms of tourism development should be the elimination of administrative barriers.
An absolutely realistic, not requiring large effort and money, set of measures for the development of tourism should include:
- First of all, unilateral abolition of visas for a number of developed countries
- Elimination of the procedure of the obligatory registration at the Visa and Registration Office for some foreigners, or, at least, prolongation of the term of stay without registration up to one month;
- Abolition of special permits to visit certain regions and territories in the country;
- Realization of the initiative to introduce electronic visas instead of traditional ones and in addition to them;
- Opportunity to issue visas at least at some key checkpoints at the land border;
- De-monopolization of the passenger air-travel industry and attraction of new air-travel companies, opening of new air routes.
These measures will help to significantly increase the number of tourists in a short time period. Their inflow will not only give impetus to the development of an industry, but also to the development of the entire economy, increase the currency inflow and positively contribute to the stability of national currency.
It is necessary to accept the fact that the information about Tajikistan for tourists will be insufficient during a long time, and often it will be negative, associated with real problems and prejudices.
However, the most effective way to create a positive “Tajikistan” brand is to open access to the country for travelers, to do everything possible to lower the cost of coming to the country and seeing its unique nature and rich culture.
 see more detail: https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Ffreemarket.tj%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F03%2FFinal-Policy-Brief.pdf&hl=ru
[i] The video is available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HvsMWN2Z7Y
The views of the author may be different from the views of Cabar.asia