We all agree the future is unknowable, but really, we can’t help ourselves. It used to be oracles and astrologers, now it’s artificial intelligence and economic forecasts. All with a roughly equal chance of success.
So here is my take. Let’s start with what we know.
Coronavirus in Central Asia
Ever since the end of the summer, it seems the coronavirus has been making few victims in Central Asia, outside of Turkmenistan. The recent rosy official government numbers cannot be confirmed or dismissed, but they do seem to square with the observations of locals that the disease has subsided for now.
I haven’t read any good explanation of why that is.
It’s definitely not because of the fantastic work by governments in the region, or people anxiously distancing. “We were all sick” is a phrase I have heard several times in 2020. Don’t believe the official numbers. Uzbekistan counted 619 official Covid deaths in 2020. Its excess mortality for 2020 was 21 000 deaths. That sounds like a more likely number.
Does getting sick once give long-lasting protection, or not? Is this a temporary lull before the next storm, or will vaccines come to the rescue? Consult your oracle.
Travel in 2021
2021: not the year for overlanding Eurasia. As I write this, many land borders are still closed. When they will open is anybody’s guess.
If you plan on visiting Central Asia this year, aim to visit one country. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are welcoming tourists, and if at all possible, will continue their open-border policy.
A high degree of uncertainty, PCR test hurdles and disrupted transport links make travel onerous again. If you make it to Central Asia in 2021,
you can be certain you’ll have the place to yourself (Julia from the forum made a good point here: locals in Kazakhstan are traveling a lot more in their own country, so you will have to share the tourist spots with them. Not much of a problem in other countries, where most locals don’t get to travel much).
Travel beyond 2021
There is the chance that travel will never recover to its previous levels. But most people seem to assume that it will. When that will be, is anybody’s guess.
But, if it does, there will be a problem of supply. Before the pandemic, renting a car to tackle the Pamir Highway was something you had to book well in advance. Now, several car rental companies have already closed, while others have had to sell some vehicles to stay afloat.
The same is true for guides and drivers. The competent ones were booked out way in advance before the pandemic. Since they are competent, a lot have found new jobs, and some will have lost faith in the fickle tourism industry once demand returns.
I don’t expect a crunch in hotel space. It’s not so easy to repurpose a hotel, so most will re-open when the time is right. Apartment rentals will also rebound very quickly – it’s simply too profitable not to rent out to tourists.
Hostels will take a bit longer to come back, definitely the higher quality hostels that we got used to in recent years. Many were rented properties. Our favourite hostel in Tashkent has been shuttered and the owner is now opening a vegan cafe. That one is lost forever.
These effects should be temporary. If the pandemic can be controlled, and no new global or regional catastrophes occur in the immediate aftermath, the Silk Road tourism industry will rebuild. For a lot of locals, tourism is not only more profitable than other jobs (if they are available at all), but also more fun and interesting.