Is Astana the New Tourism Hot Spot?
Posted on 06/28/2017
When EXPO Astana opened on June 20, it marked a number of global firsts. Not only was it the first-ever world fair to be staged in Kazakhstan, it was also the first in Central Asia and the first to be held in a nation comprised of mostly of Muslims.
By the time it closes its doors in September, it is expected that some two to four million visitors from around the world will have visited the expo.
Astana city officials are hoping the fair will also raise the city’s tourism profile on a global level.
It already seems to be working to a certain extent. For example, earlier this year the New York Times listed Astana as one of its “52 Places to Visit in 2017.”
Despite the increase in chatter about Astana, you are excused if you don’t know much about this Central Asian destination. If it helps, this map details the geography of the region as well as Astana’s location within that context.
Astana has neither the name recognition sported by many European and Southeast Asian capitals, nor does it have the “untouched territory” cache that attracts visitors to more off-the-beaten path destinations.
For the uninitiated, Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan, a nation which just celebrated its 25th anniversary of independence. But the city is—by no means—off any path. Rather, it is quite possibly forging its own path. It is also one of the most quickly developing cities in Asia, according to a press release for EXPO Astana.
Indeed, it is a bustling city comprised of futuristic high-rises and modern amenities.
In a Gizmodo article entitled, “The Strange, Post-Soviet Architecture of Astana, Kazakhstan,” Vincze Miklós writes, “with the help of architects like Norman Foster, they built a futuristic city on the remains of old buildings from the Soviet era.”
Hosting a World’s Fair, by default, means a number of new landmark buildings are dotting the city skyline. (The World’s Fair is known for introducing city-defining landmarks, including Seattle’s Space Needle, New York’s Statue of Liberty and Paris’ Eiffel Tower.)
To prepare for EXPO Astana, the city has most definitely entered a growth spurt when it comes to accommodations.
In April, the city was home to some 168 hotels with about 12,500 beds, according to Saniyar Aitekenov, the director of the city’s convention bureau in an interview with the Astana Times. In advance of the EXPO, the city planned to open another 23 properties, representing 2,500 additional beds.
At least two major global hotel brands are inaugurating new properties this year in Astana, including St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton.
The 157-room Ritz-Carlton, Astana, which opened in early June adjacent to Astana’s iconic Bayterek Tower, called the city “a destination with a bright future.”
“Much like the monument it overlooks, The Ritz-Carlton, Astana represents the future of Astana and acknowledges the city’s growing power and prominence,” said Hervé Humler, President and Chief Operating Officer, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, in a press release.
Executives at The St. Regis Astana, which is slated to open later this year, consider Astana—as well as the rest of Central Asia—an “important growth market.”
“We’ve carefully watched the gradual transfer of business and institutions to Astana, driving an expansion of the city’s international airport and the development of a new railway station, and believe this is the ideal time to bring the St. Regis brand to this burgeoning capital city,” said Bart Carnahan in 2014, when the company announced plans to open the new property. Carnahan was then senior vice president f acquisitions & development for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
For foodie travelers, there are also plenty of places to indulge. According to Mayor Asset Issekeshev, the city is home to 273 restaurants, 460 cafes and 27 canteens. In total, the 850 eateries, which emphasize a global range of cuisines, can accommodate up to 116,000 people simultaneously.
Other major new developments on tap for the city include an expansion of the international airport, a new light rail tram with 18 stations, slated for completion next year, and at least 13 new roadways linking into the city.
Getting to Astana is also relatively easy. Plenty of domestic and European carriers serve the city with a stopover in a European hub city. The stopovers also provide excellent options for visitors who might want to try Astana for a day or two, while heading to or from other, more familiar destinations.
Air Astana is also planning to expand to the United States. It has previously announced it was tentatively planning flights to New York City by 2019 after it acquires a Boeing 787 aircraft.
In the short term, EXPO Astana offers the perfect impetus to visit the bustling city. But, say expo officials, plan to stay at least a couple days, at it is impossible to visit all the pavilions in one day. EXPO Astana concludes September 10, 2017. Official events and cultural performances are scheduled daily.
PHOTO: The Bayterek Tower is an iconic landmark in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital. (photo via Flickr/Alex Butler)