No one can say Kazakhstan hasn’t been trying hard to attract tourists, especially from Europe. Last summer the country initiated a trial of new visa rules for several countries, and last week a new direct flight path opened, with Air Astana flying from Almaty, by way of Astana, to Paris.
Last summer, a new no-visa pilot program began, which allows citizens from the United States, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Korea and Japan visa-free entry for up to 15 days. The trial period ends in July 2015, though Kazakhstan may elect to extend and expand the program rather than reinstate visa restrictions. Citizens of 16 other states, including Russia, the Caucasus, and all of Central Asia except Turkmenistan, already have visa-free access to the country.
The new flight route between Paris and Astana has been a long time in coming. In June 2011, during a state visit by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Paris, transport authorities from France and Kazakhstan signed a protocol to launch direct flights between their capitals three days a week. Actual implementation of the plan, however, was delayed by a preexisting decision made by the European Union’s air safety commission to ban the Kazakh national airline and a few others from establishing new routes into Europe. Air Astana had already been operating flights to London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.
In April of last year, the restriction on Air Astana was lifted by the commission and on March 29, 2015 the inaugural flight to Paris took off from Astana. As of writing, the seven-hour direct flight originating in Paris costs at least $650 round trip (with some flights closer to $1,000 depending on date). There are cheaper flights available from other carriers, but most include multi-hour layovers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Abu Dhabi.
The European air safety commission still has some restrictions on Air Astana. The airliner is subject to operational restrictions regarding the type of aircraft it may fly into the EU. The Astana-Paris flight is on an Boeing 757, which includes, according to the Astana Times, an economy sleeper class “benefited by three seats in a separate cabin and a mattress and pillow for a comfortable trip.”
In announcing the new flight, Air Astana President Peter Foster emphasized that “the new service to Paris is a major step in developing Air Astana’s European network and serves to strengthen economic, diplomatic, cultural and tourism links between France and Kazakhstan.” He also noted that “the development of tourism is one of the main priorities of Kazakhstan.”
Indeed, the country’s tourism push has been comprehensive. Kazakhstan is already scheduled to host EXPO 2017, an international exposition, in the summer of 2017 with the theme “Future Energy.” And the old capital, Almaty, remains one of two contenders left (Beijing is the other) to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.