Uzbekistan’s remarkable wealth of attractions, from the ancient khanates of Bukhara and Khiva (once political entities ruled by a khan) to Samarkand, once capital of Tamerlane’s empire, have proved a worldwide draw. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, visitor numbers to Uzbekistan were fewer than 100,000 per annum. By 2018, World Bank figures recorded 5,346,000 arrivals. Since independence, more than any other Silk Road state, Uzbekistan has pioneered tourism in Central Asia.
Inevitably, this rapid rise means that infrastructure has struggled to keep pace. Attempts are now afoot to more evenly distribute the impact of the country’s popularity, share the economic benefits, protect cultural heritage, and reverse rural depopulation. A 2019 decree by Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev contained the aim to attract more than nine million foreign tourists by 2026.
This surge of visitors doesn’t often impact the most rural areas. It’s not uncommon to find villages populated almost exclusively by children and the elderly. Those most economically active have left for the promise of jobs in the city, or abroad. Among the elderly, whose pensions have diminished, there’s a rose-spectacled nostalgia for the certainty of the Soviet period, when ‘no one had much, but everyone had enough’. These days, traditional heritage and skills are diminished as men and women abandon their roots, often for good.
Around 50 kilometres east of Tashkent at Kumyshkang village however, among dwellings originally erected for workers at a former Soviet silver mine, a transformation is taking place. ‘Today is my birthday,’ announces Antonina Germanova, a diminutive and obviously industrious woman in her 60s. Through a metal gate and along a terrace populated by red and white geraniums, Antonina leads the way into a richly decorated living room at her guesthouse, one of the first in Kumyshkang. ‘We’ve just had Chinese people. They stayed for four days,’ she says, pouring tea.
Though the mine has long closed, the village’s location, set below the hilltop mosque of Hazrat Ali, and its healing spring waters, also attracts local visitors. Legislative changes in 2018 reduced tax and bureaucracy for small hospitality businesses, while Community Based Tourism (CBT) organisations provided training and established a framework of standards.
‘In the beginning, neighbours were curious,’ says Antonina. ‘Then they see how many people come. For me it’s interesting. We exchange information. They ask about life here.’ The guesthouse employs more than a dozen people across three families, including those selling needlework or leading horse-riding treks. ‘I have fifteen beds. Next season I plan to be bigger,’ adds Antonina, with a twinkle.
Leaving the village, I am accosted by Adurahman Burhanov, the village’s aksakal, a kind of community magistrate. ‘We have twenty families training to open guesthouses,’ he reports. ‘As tourism brings more people, it brings more money. The village will be tidied up, improved. There are benefits for both sides.’ Then he rushes off, shooing away a donkey nibbling brilliant yellow flowers from his window boxes.
In modern times, Uzbekistan has hardly been an exemplar for innovation or free enterprise. The rule of long-standing president, Islam Karimov, former leader of the communist Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, was characterised as insular, authoritarian and repressive. In 2016, Karimov died. Former prime minster, Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over and was expected to deliver continuity. However, Mirziyoyev surprised many by replacing Karimov-era ministers, releasing opposition leaders from prison and mitigating the excesses of the Uzbek security services. Elsewhere, he reinvigorated Uzbekistan’s international relations, making the first official state visits to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since 2000, and in 2019 planning more than thirty trips across the region and beyond. Foreign investment and expertise have been forthcoming. Though a confirmatory election, in which Mirziyoyev gained 86.6 per cent of the vote, was described as ‘a campaign devoid of genuine competition’ by Western monitors, the atmosphere on the streets of Tashkent is cautiously optimistic.
One hundred and twenty kilometres northeast of Tashkent, on the shores of Charvak Reservoir, built to water the cotton crops of Uzbekistan’s former command economy, lies the village Burchmulla. The area has been a popular retreat for Tashkent Uzbeks since the 1960s, close to the wild landscapes of the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. Among orchards and beehives, Burchmulla, in common with nearby villages, has a profusion of guesthouses and dachas.
Accompanied by Maruf Muradovich, CBT director for Tashkent, I travel to see some of the new developments. Arriving in the village we drive down an unpromising track to the first guesthouse. Behind high walls and metal gates, it isn’t what I expected. Replete with a swimming pool, leather sofas, electric fires, multiple vast TVs and mood lighting, I ask about the clientele. ‘Russian,’ confirms the owner. ‘But not now. Later in the season they come to hunt.’ Maruf enthusiastically describes the new Amirsoy Mountain Resort, a much-delayed USD$100m ski development in the Charvak region, finally opened in December 2019. ‘It’s going to be huge. People from India, China, Singapore, Russia will come to ski, also Gulf Arabic visitors.’
Focusing on more modest investment, Maruf shows me Farohat Tojieva’s guesthouse. Obviously the matriarch, her family property is substantial and of contemporary construction. On the ground floor a sturdy-looking Lada is parked unapologetically next to where we drink tea. ‘I was born here and grew up here,’ says Farohat. ‘I saw neighbours with guesthouses and asked them about the advantages. Then I decided.’ I ask how it has worked out. ‘Good,’ she replies without hesitation. ‘We organise special rubbish collections, four to five times a month in summer. More visitors bring more rubbish. We have a big hole. It all goes in and we cover it with soil.’ What about the future, I ask. ‘I want twice as many guests,’ says Farohat.
Driving back to Tashkent’s railway station, I board Uzbekistan’s Afrosiyob high-speed service to one of the country’s top tourism destinations, Bukhara. Lying close to a strategic crossing of the Amu Darya river, Bukhara’s history is woven into that of the Silk Road. Over the centuries its accrued wealth attracted the attention of notable figures. Genghis Khan’s 1220 visit saw Bukhara’s army butchered, the population executed or sold into slavery and the city razed. Resurgent under Amir Timur from 1370, the city reached an apogee in the 16th century with the Shaybanid dynasty. However, as Silk Road trade diminished, by the 19th century Bukhara was synonymous with its irascible emir, Nasrullah ‘the Butcher’ Khan. Bolshevik armies stormed the gates in 1920. Religious suppression and unsympathetic urban development followed. Old Bukhara was left to crumble until the 1950s.
Accompanied by a growing contingent from the local CBT committee I walk through Bukhara’s UNESCO-designated historical centre. Passing souvenir stalls and ancient trading domes we continue beyond the astonishing 48-metre, 12th century Kalyan Minaret which survived Genghis Khan’s ire and Bolshevik artillery. Even in Bukhara however, it isn’t long before active preservation gives way to neglect, ancient structures crumbling quietly beyond the transitory gaze of tour groups.
Through a maze of alleys, we eventually arrive at the guesthouse of Martaba Tosheva, Murod Yusufiy and their four children, where we are greeted with tea and music. Murod was once a musician, and the couple relish the hospitality business. ‘My wife gives cookery lessons, teaching how to make samsa and Bukhara plov. I teach music. Why not? We decided to build a bigger new house and open as a guesthouse,’ explains Murod.
‘We’re very welcoming. Great music. Very good breakfast. It’s part of our tradition. We meet guests with big hearts,’ adds Martaba. ‘We had Spanish guests, a group. At the end, when they left, we were crying too.’
Big hearts haven’t yet suffused the entirety of Bukhara society. Attempting to convert US Dollars to Uzbek Som, I am directed to the inner sanctum of Hotel Asia, a rambling property in the city’s historic centre. Descending several flights of stairs, past faded photographs of local celebrities, I follow ‘Bank’ signs to a part of Uzbekistan that remains forever Soviet. Frequent, emphatic use of ‘niet’ characterises an unsmiling transaction effected with minimum effort by the bank’s corpulent babushkas. I find myself wondering if Genghis Khan ever tried to change money when he visited.
Leaving Bukhara, we drive east through endless cotton plantations. Most of the harvest is already gathered, few pickers work the fields. Broken concrete channels recall a more intensive period of production whose thirst for water and insecticides left an unwelcome legacy across Uzbekistan. Still one of the world’s largest producers, Uzbek cotton has been boycotted by Western fashion brands and retailers in response to the use of forced labour. To address this, the Mirziyoyev government banned all child labour and adult enforced-labour in the plantations. However, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights reported in 2018 that public sector workers were still being coerced into unpaid labour.
Arriving after dark in Samarkand, Registan Square’s son-et-lumiere is drawing to a close. Uzbekistan’s headline sight, the three 15th to 17th century madrassahs of Ulegh Beg, Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori form a remarkable spectacle that transcends an overproduced lighting show.
Next day, I visit Markhaba Nurullaeva’s guesthouse, not far from Registan. ‘I retired after working as a nurse,’ explains the proprietor. ‘Running the guesthouse was my idea. It wasn’t too hard. I’d stayed in guesthouses before, so I knew how things worked.’ I ask what difference the income made. ‘I’m a widow,’ she says. ‘Without this I’d just have the pension, perhaps dividing the house and offering rooms to my grandchildren. Now I give work to my family and advice to others who want to do the same as me.’
Finally, it’s on to Jizzakh. Two hundred kilometres southwest of Tashkent, the Soviet-style industrial city is an unlikely venue for an EU-sponsored film festival. Following one of the events, I catch up with EU ambassador Eduards Stiprais, who has overseen a three-year project supported by the European Investment Bank to encourage community-based tourism in Uzbekistan’s rural areas. ‘We were afraid we could not proceed, but at the end of 2016 there were many changes,’ says Stiprais. ‘Now the president is intentional in terms of tourism. We think not even 10 per cent of the country’s tourism potential is exploited. We hope training will increase economic activity.’
I ask about other challenges in implementing change. ‘Development of mindset skills is part of the project,’ he says. ‘One problem here, for too long, was that private initiative was suppressed. City merchants were gone. Now it’s time for the rediscovery of old skills. Uzbeks were entrepreneurial people. Let them do business.’
On my final evening in Uzbekistan I wait for a flight to Moscow, looking out over a sleeping Tashkent from a room high up in Hotel Uzbekistan’s concrete cathedral to Soviet hospitality. The hotel defined an era when, for better or worse, along with most aspects of Uzbek life, tourism existed within a prescriptive framework. Recent easing of regulations was born of a singular intention. As development proceeds, the outcomes will inevitably be more varied.