For some time now, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two largest and economically strongest countries in Central Asia, have been expected to introduce a common visa. This is not yet the case, at least for the time being, though there have been reports that such an intention could be implemented within the month of February. But, apparently, we have to be a little patient. Yet things, relevant to this idea, have been moving fast until now. It’s been less than a year since it was first presented as a mechanism to facilitate the movement of tourists from abroad throughout the entire Central Asian region.
The concept of implementing such a visa mechanism was put forward by the Kazakh parliament’s Senat (upper chamber) deputy, head of the Senate’s International affairs, defense, and security committee Dariga Nazarbayeva. Hence, we obviously can identify her as the originator of that innovative arrangement. She is the one who offered a proposal to Uzbekistan for setting up an Asian version of Schengen – «Silk visa» – in order to attract tourists from abroad to the two countries. She initiated such a move during a meeting with the members of the Committee on international relations, foreign economic relations, foreign investments and tourism of the upper house of the Uzbek parliament, which took place on 4 June 2018 in the South Kazakhstani border town of Saryagash. Back then, Dariga Nazarbayeva said: “It is essential not only to stimulate the development of tourism in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but also to provide incentives for increasing tourist inflows to our countries from distant foreign states. For tourists from Europe and Southeast Asia, Central Asia is not geographically near. When they come to the region, they want to see all the countries and all the sights in one trip. Therefore, there is a need to create a common visa”.
The senator also spoke in favor of harmonizing customs procedures, based on the use of modern digital technology and advanced computer systems. «It is necessary to establish a transparent, open and friendly border regime, relations in all areas will be settled in a harmonious way then», she noted.
A considerable gap seemed, at the time, to exist between the initiative expressed at that meeting and its effective implementation. Yet an initiative, based on it, rapidly began to take shape.
At the end of December 2018 almost on the eve of the new year 2019, it was reported that the “Silk visa” project had received all approvals in the relevant departments of the two states and only technical details and equipment remained to be discussed. That was a little unexpected. It had also been stipulated at that time that it would be launched in February 2019. It was said in addition that the authorities of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan had expressed interest in joining the common visa initiative. And there’s interest in extending an invitation to Azerbaijan and Turkey. So, the proposal, put forward by Dariga Nazarbayeva, is progressively being shaped into a workable structure. It was not surprising that Kazakhstan had initiated such an arrangement.
Our republic has not long ago made significant efforts to liberalize its visa regime with the rest of the world in order to attract not only many investors, but also many tourists from the far abroad. This work has yielded results. Starting 1 January 2017, the Republic of Kazakhstan officially lifted visa requirements for nationals of 45 countries, including the European Union and OECD member states, the US, UAE, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, among others. Since then, citizens of those states have been able to visit Kazakhstan for up to 30 days without obtaining a visa before arrival. The results emerging at the national level look encouraging. Kazakhstan saw almost a 30% increase in tourists and travelers from the near and far abroad in the first half of 2018.
According to World Travel & Tourism Council, the direct contribution of travel & tourism to Kazakhstan’s GDP was KZT909.9bn (USD2,796.2mn), 1.9% of total GDP in 2017 and is forecast to rise by 4.0% pa, from 2018-2028, to KZT1,378.5bn (USD4,236.1mn), 1.7% of total GDP in 2028. The World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Kazakhstan 81st in its 2017 report, which was four positions higher compared to the previous period. The country received 7.7 million tourists in 2017 and, according to preliminary reports, over 8.5 million tourists in 2018. Further changes are expected in Kazakhstan’s travel and tourism industry.