Just the short of it…
- Tajikistan feels like the least traveled country I’ve been to and before tourism can really take off, infrastructure investment needs to be made
- The main appeal of Tajikistan is its natural beauty, as it is home to the Pamir and Fann Mountains
- In addition to tourism infrastructure, I saw firsthand how my cousin Ania is leading a project to build education infrastructure to improve reading comprehension and literacy
Tajikistan feels like the least traveled country that I have ever been to. Tourism as a percent of GDP is 3.3% as of 2017 and is expected to grow by 3.6% by 2027. The economy is powered by remittances, with somewhere between 30–50% of GDP coming from remittances. The president, Emomali Rahmon, deemed 2018 the year of tourism and handicrafts. In 2019, neither tourism nor handicrafts were particularly prevalent and the president realized that more work needed to be done and has made building tourism infrastructure a priority for the next five years.
Tajikistan’s primary appeal for tourists is its untouched natural beauty. It is home to the Pamir Mountains, often called the “roof of the world” because it is one of the highest mountain ranges in the world (the highest peak in Tajikistan is Ismoil Somoni Peak at 24,600 feet — Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet). It is also home to a smaller, yet still beautiful mountain range, the Fann Mountains, which are only a couple hours away from the capital, Dushanbe. While I was in Dushanbe, Ania and I went for a hike in the Fann Mountains with the group Hike Tajikistan, which primarily caters to expats. I even met the US ambassador on the hike!
Also on the hike was a young Tajik woman, Anna, who had just returned from a fellowship in Minnesota. She was looking to transition into the tourism economy and mentioned that before Tajikistan can really invest in marketing itself to tourists, it has to invest in infrastructure. Mountain “roads” are mainly rock-laden donkey paths that require four-wheel drive and a lot of faith in your driver.
Toilets in the mountains are basically unheard of. In Anna’s opinion, she thinks that the infrastructure investment has to come first before they can expect to see large number of tourists. One of the benefits of having very few tourists is that the country feels entirely untouched. Locals primarily use the trails as part of their daily life, and a handful of expats and adventure tourists join them.
A few days after the hike in the Fann Mountains, I went on another hike with Naim, a spunky 20 year old hiking guide to a beautiful waterfall about an hour outside of Dushanbe.
Though Naim is currently studying politics, his longer-term aspirations are in the tourism industry as a hotel manager. I felt our conversation underscored the limitations of economic opportunities in Tajikistan. Naim, a well-read and educated young man, is looking to leave Dushanbe as soon as possible to get his Master’s in hotel management abroad (ideally in Tokyo). When I pressed him about working in Tajikistan, he said that he hoped one day he would be able to, but that at this point, there weren’t enough jobs for that to be feasible.
It’s clear that Tajikistan is in desperate need of more infrastructure to compete with other, more well-known regional travel destinations like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Ania herself is working on a program focused on building education infrastructure within the country. The main goal of her project is to improve reading comprehension and literacy across Tajikistan, which is complicated by the fact that there are three main languages: Tajik, Russian, and English. They are accomplishing this goal through a variety of tactics, such as building an app and publishing children’s books in Tajik, Russian, and English. Given Tajikistan’s history, different parts of the country can speak up to four or five languages, so improving reading comprehension is no easy feat.
While I was there, Ania and her team were working hard to roll out teacher trainings for the new curriculum tools that their specialists had developed. This proved to be very reminiscent of our youth. Ania and I spent part of the weekend at her work, where she issued her orders and put me to work sorting worksheets with an eight year old. Even though I’m the older cousin by a couple of years, our childhood was characterized by Ania starring in little plays that we would put on, while I would play nearly every other character and do the lights.
While I know that continued investment in infrastructure and tourism is absolutely necessary for the Tajikistan’s future economy, I’m grateful I got to see a country this beautiful that is as yet untouched by tourists. Given how beautiful the country is, I am already itching to go back and explore even more of the mountains.
In a direct contrast to Tajikistan, one of the most untouched places I’ve been, my next top is Greece, a location very well-trodden by tourists and Instagram influencers (particularly in the summertime).