TOURISM – Tajikistan

With the future of labour migration uncertain, tourism could offer a lifeline for Pamir’s marginalized minorities

Anonymous

Tajikistan, besides being the smallest country in Central Asia, is largely comprised of mountain ranges such as the Pamir, Tien Shan and Gissar-Alai. Over the last decade, poverty levels in Tajikistan have steadily declined, with international labour migration helping to reduce its unemployment problem and increase the country’s foreign exchange reserves. Although labour migration, primarily to neighbouring Russia, has provided millions of workingage people in Tajikistan with a path to employment, labour migration governance is inadequate – there are no comprehensive pre-departure orientation programmes, nor a system of reintegration for returned migrants, and the government does little to protect its citizens while they are abroad. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, migrant remittances accounted for up to a third of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product (GDP). 

However, migration flows stalled in the early months of the pandemic as borders closed and movement was restricted, driving up poverty, informal employment and child labour in migrant households. While migration to Russia has picked up since then – almost 2.5 million Tajiks crossed the border to work in 2021, well over double the levels seen before Covid-19 – the fundamental basis of this cross-border migration looks increasingly uncertain. While Tajik economic growth is projected to slow further due to the war in Ukraine, a process of reverse migration could nevertheless be triggered if jobs in Russia dry up as a result of international sanctions. 

Against the general background of the difficult economic situation in the country, the condition of the Gorno- Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), where the Pamiri minority lives, differs from other regions. While GBAO comprises almost half (45 per cent) of Tajikistan’s territory, it is the most sparsely populated region and is home to just over 3 per cent of the country’s population. It also has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and the population is very dependent on labour migration. 

Despite having their own unique ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic characteristics, the Pamiri population is not recognized as a distinct minority by the national government.

This situation is exacerbated by the region’s political marginalization. Despite having their own unique ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic characteristics, the Pamiri population is not recognized as a distinct minority by the national government and the people are officially designated as ethnically ‘Tajik’. Furthermore, the region has been subjected to increasing militarization since November 2021, following widespread protests against the killing of a young Pamiri man by security forces. Despite the many hardships and human rights violations faced by migrants in Russia, the region’s youth still believe that leaving to work elsewhere is the best option to improve their living conditions. Many, once they return to GBAO, are still unable to find employment opportunities there. Those residents who remain in the region typically work land plots of their own and so cannot engage in agriculture as a source of livelihood. In addition, due to the natural growth of the population, a large number of land plots have been used to construct houses for growing families. A limited portion of the population work in public services or run small retail businesses. 

In this context, the tourism sector and the development of handicrafts are essential areas for enhancing the population’s well-being and capacity for income generation. In addition, increased tourism has the potential to strengthen the understanding of diversity across different regions in Tajikistan among foreigners and outsiders. The Pamir mountain range has many unique ethnographic, cultural, historical, archaeological and environmental attractions, and has enormous potential as a destination for international travellers. Consequently, in recent years, the government has expressed its intention to develop its tourism industry, from designating 2018 the ‘Year of Tourism’ to extending the country’s visa-free period for foreign visitors to 10 working days. Despite these ambitious programmes and reforms – the government even adopted a Tourism Development Strategy in 2018 where the main focus was on GBAO – the sector’s development remains stalled, in part because the government did not allocate sufficient funding to develop the necessary infrastructure for tourism. The lack of transport facilities, inadequate banking services and the absence of high-quality accommodation outside major cities have all served to prevent Tajikistan from becoming a mainstream tourist destination. 

These issues are especially evident in GBAO, given the region’s limited development and the ongoing repression of dissent: in the wake of the November 2021 protests, residents were unable to access the internet and only saw their connections restored, albeit limited to 2G, in March 2022. Unsurprisingly, the prolonged suspension of the internet worsened conditions for local businesses and the tourism industry, which had already collapsed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, global warming has accelerated the melting of glaciers in the Pamirs, leading to an increase in the frequency of avalanches. Finally, the escalation of territorial disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have deterred many potential travellers, as most reach GBAO as part of a longer journey through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and then Kyrgyzstan via Murgab and Osh. This, combined with the closure of the border with Afghanistan due to security concerns as well as the continued suspension of movement to and from China, means that travel into Tajikistan is still constrained. 

In these challenging conditions, local tourism organizations like PECTA (Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association) and civil society organizations such as the NGO ‘De Pamiri’ or the ‘Women Rock in Pamirs’ project continue their efforts to develop tourism in the region. Their projects and initiatives unite the local population with the idea of creating a tourism industry, while protecting the historical heritage of the Pamirs and preserving their handicraft traditions. They support communities in remote mountainous regions to develop the skills needed for the tourism sector and promote cross-border tourism in the northern regions of Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. These initiatives are essential, particularly for the significant numbers of Pamiris who invested in upgrading their properties prior to the pandemic in anticipation of an imminent boom in tourism. The impacts, however, extend beyond the economic: given that the tentative growth of the tourism in the GBAO was a crucial element in retaining younger people in the region, the future of the sector could determine whether there are sufficient opportunities available for them to stay. This in turn could play a decisive role in enabling the rich Pamiri culture to thrive for generations to come.

Photo: A diversity of embroidered Pamiri hats in Ismaili Kamatkhana and Centre in Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan. Credit: Anna Alboth