Crossroads Asia

Just Kidding, Please Visit Almaty

Kazakhstan is walking back restrictions on foreigners visiting select border areas.

Just Kidding, Please Visit Almaty
Credit: Big Almaty Lake via

In April, the government of Kazakhstan issued a decree widening areas along the border closed to foreigners without a special permit. This week, however, the tourist-hungry country walked back that decision as many of Kazakhstan’s best sites are located around on its edges.

Several extremely popular destinations fell within the new “closed” zones. According to a U.S. Mission in Kazakhstan advisory dated July 13,  “most of the popular tourist areas in Kazakhstan – Medeu, Shymbulak, Big Almaty Lake, Charyn Canyon, Alakol Lake, Monakhov Gorge, and other locations within 25 kilometers of a border – now fall in so called “closed” zones.” Kazakhstan shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

In June, Tengrinews quoted Rashida Shaikenova, chairwoman of Kazakhstan’s Tourist Association as saying the new restrictions were a “cultural shock.” A new visa regime launched last year and recently extended and expanded allows citizens from 19 countries–including Australia, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, the UAE, the U. K. and the U.S among others–visa-free entry to Kazakhstan for up to 15 days. “But now we have a problem,” Shaikenova said, “foreign tourists have to obtain passes to visit places like Lake Alakol and Big Almaty Lake. And to do that they have to wait around 10 days after applying. We are working with law enforcement authorities to reduce the waiting time. But the mere fact that permits are needed creates even a greater problem then (sic) the waiting time and application documents.”

The Tourism Department started work almost immediately to adjust the new law. According to Tengrinews, Timur Duisengaliyev, acting director of the department, “These problems do have a negative impact on the image (of Kazakhstan).”

“It is not a dead, everything can be solved,” Duisengaliyev said. “But it is inconvenient.”

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The U.S. mission in Kazakhstan warned American tourists that it’s “unclear how this legislation will be enforced, but mobile Kazakhstan State Border guards patrolling these areas have the power to arrest violators of the law or to apply administrative fines up to 10,000 tenge per person, approximately $55.”

The recent revision to the decree signed by Prime Minister Karim Massimov adds an approved list of areas exempted from the law–including Big Almaty Lake, Lake Alakol, Kolsay Lakes and Charyn Canyon, the high-altitude skating rink at Medeo, the Shymbulak skiing resort, Jungar Alatau national park, Ustyurt nature reserve, the cities of Aktau, Atyrau, Uralsk, Ridder, Saryagash and Taraz.

Fines can be levied on tourists that stray outside of the approved areas within the border zone. It would be reasonable to assume that there will be some confusion among tourists and local authorities alike regarding the newly revised rules. Further, Tengrinews notes, “It is also unclear whether the authorities will be checking the cars and hikers heading to the exempt sites through the near-border territory for foreigner “trespassers.” This makes flying the only safe option if you can afford it.”