Overtourism, coming soon to Georgia and Uzbekistan?

There’s been a lot of talk recently of the problems of ‘overtourism’, with vigorous protests in places like Barcelona and Venice against the hordes who flood in, cause residential accommodation to be converted into Airbnb lets and hostels, get drunk and generally behave disgracefully, forgetting that their destination is somebody’s home, not just a playground. It’s particularly galling in the month that Tourism Concern, the UK charity that has done so much to bring this issue to public awareness, ceased operations (who knows how long their website will remain live?). I supported TC as a member for the best part of twenty years, but membership revenue was never enough to keep it going and in these hard times grants have also dried up. With any luck the issue now has enough traction with journalists and opinion-formers for it to remain in the public eye.

Just to recap – since 1995, the number of tourists worldwide has more than doubled, from 550 million to 1.3 billion in 2017, according to the World Bank. International tourist arrivals increased by 7% in 2017 and are expected to continue growing at 4-5% pa. This boom is driven above all by the growth of the global middle class, currently standing at around 3.7 billion, and growing by another 160 million annually (above all in China and India, of course), as well as by the preference of young people now to consume experiences rather than things. It’s fuelled by cheap air travel and cheap cruise holidays, which dump thousands of people at a time in one place, and by social media – there now seems to be a very consumerist attitude to travel, which doesn’t actually happen until it’s been Instagrammed. There’s no doubt that tourism in general is a force for good, in terms of education and international understanding, and in economic terms (it accounts for 10% of world GDP), so no-one wants it to go away altogether, but many destinations are being overwhelmed, while there’s potential to shift some of the load to nearby alternatives.

Another game-changer has been the growth of AirBnB, which has created a lucrative new market for itself (gross sales of US$14.4bn in 2016) and for home owners. It’s getting a lot of criticism too, for undermining the hotel industry and driving down wages, for disrupting local housing markets and changing the characters of neighbourhoods, and above all for avoiding taxes, and enabling renters to avoid taxes. Little by little, cities across the world are requiring AirBnB properties to be registered so that they can only be rented out for limited periods and taxes can be levied. This has happened in Barcelona, where a new mayor was elected specifically on a platform of cracking down on illegal short-term rentals, in Portugal, where Lisbon and Porto suddenly became Europe’s coolest destinations and property prices rocketed, and in Amsterdam, where the tax on budget hotels, widely seen as swamping the city centre, is also being raised by 20%. Elsewhere, tourist taxes are being increased, as are entry charges – Angkor Wat almost doubled its just before we got there last year – and in Thailand and the Philippines overloaded islands and beaches (including THAT one where they filmed The Beach) are simply being closed. Mustang in Nepal is opening up to tourists but with a fee of US$500 per person.

I live in Cambridge (UK), where tourist numbers have grown by two million in just three years, from 5.4 million in 2013 to 7.6 million in 2016 – and there’s a general perception that they mostly get off their buses for an hour or two, clutter up King’s Parade and spend virtually no money. Cambridge is notorious for having almost no hotels anywhere near the centre, so in a way it’s not surprising – but many problems are also being reported with AirBnB properties too. It’s interesting that we are also dealing with a newly identified problem labelled as ‘over-studentification’ – with full-time student numbers in the UK up 660,000 in the last 20 years there is high demand for student HMOs (houses in multiple occupation), which has caused some communities to be virtually obliterated. In response new accommodation blocks have been built and suddenly the areas that had been taken over by HMOs are abandoned. Doesn’t everything move absurdly fast in today’s world?

However, I’m now in Uzbekistan, a country that is interested in developing its tourism industry – and with Silk Route cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva as key attractions, there’s obviously plenty of potential. To their credit, the government is looking at the rather headlong growth of tourism in Georgia (which of course is covered by my Bradt guidebook and some blog posts), where visitor numbers rose from 2.8 million in 2011 to nearly 7 million in 2017, and the infrastructure has been struggling to keep up – what’s more, there’s a real fear that Tbilisi in particular has lost a little of what made it special, and – more importantly – there’s the beginning of a backlash from residents. I don’t altogether miss the times in the 1990s when there was absolutely no street lighting in the city so that even where there were signs with street names you couldn’t see them, and in any case you had to worry a bit more about being bopped on the head with a steel bar – but still the city is less ‘authentic’ (whatever that means) than when I first knew it. Outside Tbilisi and a few well-known spots, things have changed less.

In Uzbekistan there’s pressure to abolish the visa system altogether (as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and indeed Georgia and Armenia), but the government seems to be taking it one step at a time, starting with an e-visa system for most of the developed Western countries. Having said that, they did just abolish visas for French tourists a week before the president went on a state visit to France… As I said in my previous post, I’d much rather they abolished the registration system, which is pretty pointless now it’s legal to stay with Uzbeks in their homes, and they don’t bother looking at the registration slips when you leave the country.

New hotels are being built, and I was very impressed by those in central Bukhara, where modern buildings blend beautifully with their historic settings. In Samarkand they’re being much more gung-ho with their new constructions, alas. The Uzbek railways are seeing a huge amount of investment, with Spanish high-speed trains running from Tashkent to Samarkand, Shakrisabz, Bukhara and perhaps in 2019 to Khiva, as well as a new line to the Fergana region. Booking tickets is still a bit tricky, especially as some of the longer-distance trains don’t run daily, and when they’re full they’re full – there are no tickets for standing passengers. There are more ATMs than a few years ago, although they do tend to be hidden away in hotel lobbies – and this is still very much a cash economy, with little opportunity to let your card take the strain. They very much need to improve internet access, and happily I hear that Korean technology is to be brought in to do that.

Nurata from Alexander the Great’s fortress
Nurata – a new park separated by a wall from housing where actual human beings live.

There is one rather worrying thing, however, which is that the authorities are rather too keen to demolish their old towns to create park-like promenades to lead tourists from one ancient mausoleum or madrassa to the next – maybe one day these will look natural and lived-in, but at the moment one is just aware of a huge loss of context and authenticity. That said, I’m told that residents are perfectly happy to be transferred to modern housing in the suburbs. Shakhrisabz is the most notorious example of this (there’s a photo here), but even tiny Nurata now has a rather sterile park between the mosque and a grand new hotel (which it did need). In Samarkand a main road north from the Registan has been nicely pedestrianised, but the neighbouring Jewish quarter was actually walled off (there’s a photo at the end of this post). The Gur-i-Amir, the lovely mausoleum of Timur in Samarkand, was left horribly isolated and shorn of its urban context when the surrounding houses were replaced by a park. Construction is also under way on Tashkent City and Samarkand City, two glitzy new developments of skyscraper hotels and business centres, and during the presidential visit to France mentioned above, the French company Bouygues was given a contract to build a new hotel complex on the edge of Bukhara.

I hope we won’t be looking at Uzbekistan in a few years saying ‘it used to be so great, but now it’s ruined’. There’s a lot to be said for going slowly.

PS the main station in Tashkent is to be refurbished, so they’ve built the new Tashkent Yuzhniy (South) station (below) – international trains still use the main station (which is handier because it’s on the metro) while most domestic trains use the South station. The high-speed Afrosiab trains are currently using the main station but are, I gather, set to switch to the South station. Check your tickets carefully, as nobody bothers to tell you where you need to be, and the trains only call at one even when they pass through the other.

Two Uzbekistans

I’ve come to the opinion that there are really two Uzbekistans – yes, there are two Frances, two Italys, two Britains – or probably more in these fractured Brexit days – two anywheres, but bear with me. The main cities and tourist sites, above all Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, are now places that visitors can reach by high-speed trains or frequent flights, where they can find ATMs, good hotels, hostels and restaurants and where they can speak English or German with guides or even an increasing number of ordinary people in the streets. Restaurants and buses have prices posted and you can just get on with your stuff. These are pleasant and relaxing places to be – I’ll say it again, the Uzbeks (and I include the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkomens and others living in Uzbekistan) are some of the nicest people I’ve come across, really enjoying the way their country is opening up to the world.

Then there are the smaller towns and villages which are not yet surfing this wave. Here you need to speak Russian (or Uzbek, Tajik etc) to get much done, and you also have to accept that the internet is barely functional and that nothing here has any fixed value, except train fares – but for pretty much everything else there’s a haggling culture which means that no-one will tell you an actual fixed price for anything. That’s just the way it is, the Uzbeks are some of the nicest people around but as a tourist in these less touristy places you will end up paying far more than the locals do for just about everything. I don’t mind a ‘tourist tax’ (or non-Russian-speaker tax) of 10 or 20 per cent, and I don’t agree with the UNESCO policy against charging foreigners more at places like Angkor Wat – but it’s ironic that any Uzbeks who found themselves there would have to pay the pretty steep foreign tourist rate, as would any Cambodians visiting the Registan in Samarkand. But I don’t want to pay three or four times what I ‘should’ pay every time, and I really find it odd living in a world where almost nothing has a fixed value. Especially when I’m supposed to be telling my dear readers what the cost of things is.

To be marginally more specific, I’m in Termez, the crossing point from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, and thus the southernmost point in Uzbekistan. The night train from Samarkand was cancelled (find out at 22.30, get given your money back and told to go into town to find a bed – but the point of the night train is that you won’t need a hotel) so I came the next day in a shared taxi. The night train back was full, so I’m killing another night in a hotel and will waste most of another day in shared taxis. I spent today visiting the ruins of the earlier incarnations of Termez (it was founded by Alexander the Great, and was an important military and commercial stop on the Silk Route until Genghiz wiped it out), and I intended to do this by using the marshrutka (minibus) routes detailed in the book what I am updating. Unfortunately, the route numbers have all changed, so firstly, after a while by the road, I got bundled into a car which took me to the Hakkim al Termezi mausoleum, and the driver massively shortchanged me. Fine, I did my business there and was able to get a marshrutka back (with a quarter-hour hiccup at a check-point, but that’s another story and certainly nothing to do with me, I wasn’t the person who didn’t have ID), and I only paid a bit over the odds. Then I went out to the Sultan Saodat mausoleum, and happily had exactly the right change to pay exactly what I saw everybody else paying. I lugged my rucksack to a couple of other sites but then had to get the same marshrutka line back – this time I didn’t have the right change and so got given back a few thousand Som less than I should have been (I thought I’d get off at the end of the line to have a bit of time to sort things out, but he was actually taking someone further on, they’re helpful that way; anyway, he may have been charging me for my baggage or something). All in all, it’s only a matter of a few dollars over the whole day, but I just find it a bit wearing. Actually, it’s also strange that time has no fixed value either – mostly life is pretty relaxed here, with plenty of time to chat, but occasionally someone (usually a driver) will be in a tearing hurry.

You can actually learn more about Old Termez by visiting the fine Archeological Museum in New Termez than by schlepping out to the ruins – this was one of the main centres of Buddhism in what is now Uzbekistan, and I was hopeful of finding some examples of Gandharan sculpture, which you may recall I was thrilled to find in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore. It seems that the Buddhist culture here was heavily influenced by Gandhara (the Khyber Pass was an important part of the Silk Route) but there’s nothing that comes close to the pure beauty of classic Gandharan Buddhist sculpture.

I kept reading that Termez was the launchpad for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while I was under the impression that it wasn’t an invasion, but rather ‘fraternal support’ for the embattled communist regime there. Well… it was a bit of both, it seems. In April 1978 a left-wing coup overthrew the democratic government, and two communist parties formed a coalition in order to govern the country. In December 1979 the Soviets sent in 30,000 troops over the ironically named Friendship Bridge, just outside Termez, in order to support one of the communist parties and overthrow the president, who was the leader of the other one.

Shakrisabz, with the Ak Serai in the distance.

Actually, there is one place that lies in between the two Uzbekistan – Shakrisabz is a small town without much tourist infrastructure, but then there’s no need to stay the night as it’s an easy day trip from Samarkand (over a pretty spectacular mountain pass). This is another place where the old town has been swept away to create a rather sterile new park linking the town’s tourist sights, from the Dor at-Tilyavat mosque in the south to the massive remains of Timur’s Ak Serai palace about a kilometre to the north.
In general, though, you can take your choice – the ‘new’ Uzbekistan where tourism is easy, or the old one where you have to work that much harder, but with the compensation of knowing that you’re away from the tourist crowds. Of course, with a guide you can cross the boundary, to see Termez and its surroundings for instance, but in a sense you’re still in the bubble of the new Uzbekistan. When I got to the Fergana Valley, at the end of my tour of Uzbekistan, I was given a car and driver by a local tourism company (the excellent DOCA Tours), which you might think was the perfect way to visit this pretty untouristed part of the country – but I had to use Russian to communicate with the driver, so it didn’t really solve my problem. It was only in the wonderful Margilan silk factory (hardly a factory, as pretty much everything is still done by hand) and the potteries of Rishtan that I was able to relax and speak English.

PS After four weeks away I returned to Tashkent and realised that there are actually three Uzbekistans – because the capital feels nothing like the rest of the country. It actually seemed like a Russian city to me, although half the population is no longer ethnically Russian as it was in Soviet times. It’s maybe 20% Russian now, but the contrast with the rest of the country is so strong that it seems more. Women’s skirts are about a foot shorter than in the rest of the country (kudos to the wife of the British ambassador for strutting hers with more style than any of the locals), there are couples kissing, even the odd alcoholic passed out under a tree, all more Russian than Uzbek.

A Tale of Three Cities

Uzbekistan’s three great Silk Road cities are Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (although the cities of the Fergana Valley were also important crossroads); they’re all different, and I’m not sure which one I preferred. I was intrigued by the different patterns of historical decay and restoration in the three cities.

In Samarkand the Registan was left to decay under the Soviets (one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg madrassa collapsing in the 1920s) and the surrounding area was cleared in the 1960s to build four-storey apartment blocks. In 1967 the regional headquarters of the Communist Party was built on the former citadel, then another medieval quarter was demolished and the sixteenth-century Mirzo baths were replaced by a big restaurant. All of Timur’s fabulous gardens have also vanished.  The Registan did see massive restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, and the remains of the Bibi Khanum mosque were rebuilt; across the road, the dome of the Bibi Khanum mausoleum is also totally new. In 1996 the houses around the Gur-i-Amir, the lovely mausoleum of Timur, were cleared and the quiet backwater that reminded Wilfred Blunt of an English cathedral close was replaced with a sterile park. The nearby Aksaray mausoleum has also been rather over-restored, by the look of it. German experts have been working in Samarkand since 1991 and have fixed the problems caused by poor restoration and heavy rain at the Tilla Kari madrasa (religious college) in the Registan, and are now turning their attention to the fifteenth-century Ishratkhana mausoleum, a little-known architectural jewel a kilometre or so south of the centre, so one can hope that this will be subtler work than elsewhere.

The Gur-i-Amir, mausoleum of Amir Timur

 

The latest problem is that private developers are demolishing houses to build hotels and apartment blocks, notably in the Tsarist quarter immediately west of the historic centre – this is also supposedly protected by UNESCO and the demolitions are clearly illegal, but the local government is if anything encouraging them.

In Bukhara, far more of the medieval city centre has been preserved than in Samarkand, although it has been opened up, and supposedly tidied up, by clearing many of the buildings between the main sights. The Soviets left the city to decay, and demolished all but three of the fifty-odd covered trading domes, so that it became unbearably hot to get around the city in summer and the population largely decamped to modern suburbs (in fact, Bukhara was one of the first cities to develop suburbs, as a result of the Arab conquest of 709, so this was history repeating itself). Fitzroy Maclean came here in 1938 and then in 1958, when he noted that it had been tidied up almost beyond recognition, with the ancient walls and gates mostly swept away and boulevards driven through the maze of narrow, winding streets, and was clearly set to become a tourist centre. Geoffrey Moorhouse made the same observation, also noting that the unrestored domes were topped by storks’ nests but that the storks (the national bird) had not been seen since nearby wetlands had been drained. There’s been a lot more restoration recently, unfortunately involving laughable plastic storks on rooftops, and it’s also been a bit gung-ho at times – in 2017 a wrong-headed decision was taken to lower the roads to their medieval level, destroying many archeological remains in the process, and causing part of a madrasa’s façade to collapse.

Sympathetic architecture in Bukhara

On the other hand, I was impressed by the new hotels which fit in very well with the traditional style – and some of them really do deserve their ‘boutique’ tag. Some of the city’s many disused madrasas are being re-used as hotels, restaurants and museums, but there are many more if you fancy investing.

The same is true of Khiva, the smallest of the three, which was largely abandoned when Urgench, 30km to the north, was chosen for industrial development. It was effectively a museum city by 1999, with the feeling of a ghost town – although it’s ironic that many of its madrasas and minarets were actually built in the early twentieth century. Now it’s buzzing with tourists, at least in spring and autumn, although it’s far too hot to visit in summer and too cold in winter. There are three hotels in converted madrassas (one in the old town and two outside) – they lend themselves really well to this recycling, with their monastic cells around a pleasant courtyard.

 More on Khiva

In Khiva, I went to see the new train station (they’ve built a branch from Urgench, and now need to electrify it to extend the Afrosiyob high-speed trains here – sometime in 2019, I believe) which is about a kilometre east of the old town – and there’s a great traffic-free boulevard which will be lined with hotels and shopping complexes. I’m assured that this was an area of markets, not housing, and that a new bazaar is under construction nearby.

The new boulevard from Khiva station towards the old city

 

The Bradt guide to Uzbekistan gives a good account of the city’s amazing array of mosques, mausoleums and minarets – but it doesn’t really say much about its museums. There’s a 100,000 som (USD12) ticket that covers all 15 of the old town’s museums, but most of those museums are of very limited interest – so I’ll have to give some guidance. Still, it’s reasonable value if you visit a few of them. In the new town, the Nurillabay Palace has just been restored and reopened – it was only built at the start of the twentieth century, and there are a couple of galleries of below-average art. The only exhibit of interest is of historic photographs of Khiva under the khanate. For this they charge 50,000 som (USD6) – more than twice as much as any other museum or monument I’ve visited in Uzbekistan, apart from the Registan in Samarkand, which costs 30,000 som and is worth every one.

I did say in my previous post that there’s been a move towards abolishing separate charges for photography in museums, but I then noticed that this was less the case in Bukhara – happily, Khiva fell into line with the trend I’d spotted elsewhere – phew.

The current edition of the Bradt guide also issues a heart-felt plea for a restaurant – any restaurant – in Khiva to stay open out of season, and I’m happy to report that their prayers have been answered, and several places will be open all winter. This is despite the bone-crunching cold that people can already feel on its way – tourists are still enjoying mid-October sun, but the locals are huddled in their wonderful padded ikat jackets. I think I may have to buy one.