Published on Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What cost nature in Kazakhstan

New ski resort in the one of the most pristine mountain ranges of Central Asia: a step ahead or a deadly blow?

Today one of the hottest discussions in Kazakhstan is about government project on building a ski resort on the Kok-Zhailyau Gorge.

The primary economic motivation "ski tourists spend six times more than seaside tourists".
Kok-Zhailyau -rising gently to flat meadows right above the center of Almaty, concealed from the city by a small, soft ridge, is located to the south of Almaty city, and is one of the most accessible and favorite places of Almaty citizens and guests.

Hundreds of people come here with their families to stay for few hours or for several days. For hundreds of years before natives enjoyed the place as a prized summer pasture - "zhailyau" in Kazakh. Currently, Kok-Zhailyau is the only place near Almaty that is off-limits for cars. The atmosphere of this place is very special and warm - people who never met before greet each other and talk. The place has its own traditions.

Plans for building a ski resort on Kok-Zhailyau first surfaced  in  1990"s, however for different reasons they were abandoned. But, in autumn 2011 information about the project appeared in mass media again.

On February 21, 2012 Asset Isekeshev - a newly appointed Minister of Industry and New Technologies of Kazakhstan announced the ski resort on Kok-Zhailyau as a primary target of economic development effort. 

He referred to the Address of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev to the People of Kazakhstan: "We need to make a countrywide research to figure out the places of tourism growth, there are lots of them. In this regard, it is an important project to develop world-class ski resorts near Almaty. Experts believe that a tourist who goes to a ski resort spends 6 times more than if they go to a sea. The country may turn this into a great advantage".

On February 7, 2012 the Kazakhstan"s parliament amended the law of Natural Protected Areas, so that it became possible to withdraw lands from the territory of National Parks for national tourism projects.

So, Mr. Isekeshev sees positive aspects and provides several arguments towards building: a large potential market of around 2 billion people living within "5 hours" flight" from Almaty; 7 months of snow coverage; and the new resort will be situated near Almaty city with population of 1.5 mln people.

  • 500 km of ski runs are projected
  • ski lifts to provide access to peaks
  • infrastructure of the planned resort includes  restaurants, shopping malls, golf courses, and, of course, roads.
  • building of hotels of "international level"
  • building of residential houses and apartments
  • total investment into the project equals 112 bln tenge (c. USD 750 mln.)
  • according to Mr. Isekeshev the project promises to create no less than 20,000 regular jobs.

  • Almaty already has another popular ski resort, Chimbulak. Chimbulak is situated much higher than Kok-Zhailyau (low point at 2500 m - vs 1400 m above sea level). Chimbulak is well equipped: 4 skilifts, a hotel, several restaurants, large parking zone. And there are already 10 smaller ski resorts with good potential.
  • The new resort, the gigantic Kok-Zhailyau, promises to become a new player on a comparatively small market of Kazakhstan. It would seem highly unlikely that the country could support yet another big ski resort.
  • Besides Kazakhstan with Chimbulak and 10 smaller resorts there are several ski resorts in Asian region: Kyrgyzstan, with Karakol and several smaller ones, Gulmarg in Indian Himalayas, and China, with 11 large ski resorts. The fact is that these resorts offer better quality of service and considerably lower prices;  even Almaty skiers prefer Kyrgyz resorts to local choices. And flight tickets to Almaty are considerably more expensive than tickets in Europe or Asia.
  • Independent experts in Kazakhstan and Russia also question the length of snow coverage period as well. According to current estimates snows lies on Chimbulak 4-5 months max. Remember, Kok-Zhailyau is much lower and thus much warmer. So the working season of the new resort seems to be 3.5-4 months maximum, which of course decreases the number of potential tourists and therefore, expected profit.
  • Finally, the gorge is narrow and small (overall length is 6km). A figure of 500km (officially projected length of ski runs) exceeds total lengths of tracks of 3 main Ski Valleys of France, and seems to be unreal in terms of one short and narrow gorge.

The gorge has a several factors that increase its cost substantially
  • The slopes of peak Kumbel above the Kok-Zhailyau are extremely avalanche-prone and thus are dangerous, according to experts.
  • Other slopes are not steep or long enough for high quality skiing, while there a lot of work is required to level therugged terrain.
  • The place has insufficient water supply - few springs and no mountain rivers.

Ecological aspects also provide arguments against building:
  • Almaty is already one of the world"s most polluted cities - the project will only increase the pollution
  • Kok-Zhailyau Gorge belongs to Ile-Alatau State National Natural Park. Establishment of such a large project is against the law of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Convention on Biological Diversity (by UNEP, signed in 1992).
  • The flora of Small Almaty Gorge is represented by 811 plant species, including 17 species listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan, 11 endemic species. Malus sieversii, the wild apples that are sole ancestor of most cultivars of apples are found in the Gorge. The species are now considered vulnerable to extinction. The building of such a ski resort will cut down the trees inevitably.
  • In 2000 Ile-Alatau National park was included in the provisional list of sites of the Republic of Kazakhstan to be nominated for the World Heritage list.

Given the environmental concerns why is this project still on the cards?

In order to return the investments builders are planning to sell commercial property, and residential houses and apartments, which currently contradicts the law,(Kok-Zhailyau is a part of  Ile-Alatau State Park, where such activity is strictly prohibited).

The only way for this to happen is for Kok-Zhailyau to be excluded from the territory of the park thus enabling developers to use government funding to advance create a massive building project. Will this be allowed to happen?

The initiative group for protection of Kok-Zhailyau is struggling to change the plans of government and commercial investors and to save this masterpiece of nature.

On January 24th an open letter for Kok-Zhailyau protection was addressed to the President of Kazakhstan, the Ministries, and Almaty City Council.

Over 2000 Kazakhstanis and people from other countries already signed the letter but  the effort continues. Continuing the mass media campaign, the team is working on legal issues and exploring every opportunity they can to protect Kok-Zhailyau.

For more information follow the link

Valere Tjolle
Valere is editor of the Sustainable Tourism Report Suite 2012 Special Offers HERE


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