On a recent, cool March morning in a village near Bishkek, 20 Austrian tourists boarded an aging helicopter for the 30-minute flight to 4,000-meter-high peaks. Over the course of a week, they each pay over $4,800 for 12 hours of flight time in the Kyrgyz Air Force Mi-8MTV, giving them access to some of the world’s best heli-skiing. Meals, accommodation and local cultural excursions were included in the package.
A couple of hundred heli-skiers travel to Kyrgyzstan each winter, mostly from Austria, Switzerland, Russia, and Japan, according to Peter Unterluggauer, a guide who has led tours in the Tien Shan Mountains since 2004. “The snow is very good, there is enough of it, and there are several good mountain options, so it’s easy to avoid bad weather,” says Unterluggauer. What’s more, it’s a relatively good value: Heli-skiing in Kyrgyzstan costs approximately half what it does in Canada, the sport’s top destination.
“It’s very profitable,” says Mirali Mukhamedziev, general director of Muza Travel, a Bishkek-based tourism outfit. “Foreigners keep coming—most of our clients are repeat customers.”
Only two traditional ski resorts in Central Asia approach international standards—Chimbulak, outside Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Karakol, in far eastern Kyrgyzstan. Most other resorts are small, with only one or two lifts and a handful of trails. Seventeen ski areas ostensibly operate in Kyrgyzstan, though only five sell more than 200 lift tickets per day during peak season.
Chimbulak saw a massive infusion of cash in preparation for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, when it was the site of downhill events. The upgrade included new lifts to bring guests from the Medeu ice rink just outside of Almaty to the 3,163-meter Talgar Pass, linking the resort to the city’s public bus system. While the Games led to better facilities, geography still hinders expansion. “It is still the same one slope, crowded and expensive,” says Oleg Samukhin, an avid skier from Almaty. He is among many die-hard skiers that opt for Karakol to avoid Chimbulak’s crowds.
Karakol is an attractive alternative for comparatively wealthy skiers from Kazakhstan and Russia. Day passes are $20, less than half the $50 charged at Chimbulak. In addition to quality snow and lifts, Karakol also offers trails lined with attractive evergreens and a well-appointed hotel on site—both rarities in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan’s value to Kazakhs and Russians is clear. “We are reasonably close, inexpensive, and there are no language or visa barriers,” explains Mukhamedziev of Muza Travel.
To shorten the distance still more, Muza partnered with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Kazakhstan’s SCAT air company to schedule winter round-trip flights from Almaty to Karakol this season, which shorten travel time from an overnight bus ride to a mere 70- minute flight.
But when Mukhamedziev tried to negotiate package deals for the flights with potential partners in Karakol, he came across some of the salient issues facing the tourism industry in Central Asia: “No one would hear us out. The guys who run the ski area said they saw no need to offer [customers] incentives—there are lines at their lifts all winter anyway. ‘We’re button pushers,’ they said. ‘We push the button to start the lifts and sell tickets for them. That’s it.’”
With its distance from Europe and North America, except for a few hundred western heli-skiers Central Asia may never become a global ski destination. “I don’t think that it will attract Europeans,” said Samuel Maret, director of Mountec, a Swiss company supplying snow-grooming equipment to slopes in the region. Flights are expensive, inconvenient, and limited. Visas can be cumbersome. Safety and emergency medical care are also concerns.
Of the nine elevated chairlifts operating in Kyrgyzstan, only three are legally registered with the government, and only two meet international safety standards, according to Maret. The helicopters used to ferry foreign heli-skiers belong to the military. A tour guide who helps arrange logistics admits the pilots are freelancing with government equipment – a situation that could, in theory, end at any time.
Downhill skiing has also rapidly grown in popularity among locals and East Asians in recent years. Maret says the real potential for Central Asia lays in capturing greater market share from emerging markets, such as China and South Korea, as well as nurturing local interest in skiing.
Local ticket sales offer some of the most impressive growth statistics in the sector. Maret says the Kyrgyz market has grown at 60-70 percent since 2000. In the 2010 season, he says, resorts sold 15,000 one-day lift passes; this year the number has surpassed 25,000. Kazakhstan also is projecting strong growth.
Despite rising local demand, new development remains scarce thanks to investment security and transparency concerns. Accessibility is also a problem. To traverse poorly maintained roads, skiers must own expensive vehicles or hire drivers, imposing additional costs and inconvenience for new local clients. Still, operators believe the industry is heading in the right direction. “The potential here is great,” says Kyrgyz tour operator Alibek Rakhmatullaev after watching the camouflaged Mi-8 lift off from a snowy helipad. “We need to build investor confidence. We just need five years of stability.”
Myles Smith is a freelance reporter focusing on Central Asia.