I’ve spent most of my career abroad, advising other countries on how to develop their tourism sectors as a key component of rural development. But spending time in the UK recently due to COVID, I’ve started looking at my own country with a critical eye, and reflected how much we can learn from others. There’s no doubt that the UK is a tourism powerhouse, typically ranking in the top 5 countries for tourism receipts and top 20 for tourist arrivals, but tourism is unevenly distributed within the country, predominantly in towns and cities; and the combination of Brexit and COVID has had a devastating impact on tourism and the closely related hospitality sector. If we want to rebuild tourism sustainably, especially in rural areas where it can have the biggest economic impact, we need to look outside the British bubble and start implementing ideas tried and tested elsewhere. Surprising as it might sound, Central Asia would be a great place to start. 

At a grassroots level, especially in smaller communities where there’s an absence or shortage of tourist accommodation, homestays can plug the gap and generate income for local families. Providing training and small matching grants for homestay owners is one of the focus areas for the World Bank’s Rural Economy Development Project (REDP) in Tajikistan. Establishing homestays has enabled tourists to discover rural areas of Navoi and Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, visiting areas where there would otherwise be no place to stay; and homestays anchor the community-based tourism (CBT) network across Kyrgyzstan. Unlike Airbnbs, which are notorious for pricing local families out of affordable housing, the attraction of a homestay is that you are staying in a family’s spare room, seeing their home just as it is, chatting to them, and sharing meals together. Foreign visitors to the UK are so excited to learn about British culture and many of them would jump at the chance to spend a night or two with a family, experiencing everyday life. 

The appeal of CBT is that the simplest products and services can attract tourists and generate revenue. And they require very little investment to develop. A guided walk, a picnic at a scenic spot, and an introduction to foraging in hedgerows would make for an idyllic summer day for a tourist. One of my favourite memories of visiting Uzbekistan’s Sentob Valley is of learning to bake bread in a tandor, then eating it with homemade jam in the garden. In the same village you can help feed the chickens, learn to milk a cow, or collect honey from the hives, activities few city dwellers will ever have experienced. Depending on the time of year there are grapes, apples, and pomegranates to pick, crush, or store. I grew up in the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire and return regularly to see my parents. There are plenty of orchards and a handful of beekeepers, seasonal pheasant shoots, and an annual flower show and fete. We could do much more to market the traditional harvest festival as a tourist attraction, bringing it out of churches and school halls and making it a much larger, collaborative event with farmers, artisanal food producers, restaurateurs, and shopkeepers. The potential for rural CBT is there, as it is in communities across the UK. 

Organising CBT activities and events isn’t complicated or expensive, because they’re usually just an extension of what is already going on in the local area. Where CBT associations and other tourism organisations can help is in advising how to monetise ideas, provide a high quality customer experience, and market the products effectively. Looking at the Visit Britain website I was glad to see them highlight experiences such as sampling fresh seafood in Devon, stargazing in the Scottish highlands, and visiting national parks, but these aren’t the first things international tourists think of when planning to visit the UK. Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, and perhaps a tour of Manchester United football club are all more likely to feature highly on tourists’ agenda. My view is that these already popular experiences will continue to sell themselves; we don’t need to promote them further. In Uzbekistan, the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva – all three of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – drive tourism because tour operators around the world know that they are an easy sell and continue offering them to their customers. Instagram influencers do the rest. The tourist board, Uzbektourism, is increasingly aware that their role is to promote the underdogs and stimulate tourism elsewhere. The winter sports press trip I led to Amirsoy, Uzbekistan’s newest ski resort, in 2020, was probably the best PR initiative I’ve ever run, and Uzbektourism is now working to sell products such as handicrafts tours of the Fergana Valley, hiking in Surkhandarya, and eco tourism in Karakalpakstan to the world. Sponsorship of carefully curated press trips and cultural events are powerful marketing tools, but where tourist information is lacking, that also needs to be addressed, so Uzbekistan has supported UK publisher Bradt Travel Guides to publish the first ever guidebook dedicated to Karakalpakstan.

Lessons from Central Asia

The last lessons I want to talk about now from Central Asia are not for local communities and CBT associations, but rather for the government, because however much the state might like to push responsibility for tourism development and growth onto businesses, the public sector does have a vital role to play. Uzbekistan is now visa-free for more than 90 nationalities, including UK passport holders who can visit for up to 30 days. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all have similar visa regimes. And the UK? The hostile environment extends to those wanting to holiday and spend their money here. For many nationalities, getting a UK visa is disproportionately expensive, time consuming, and stressful, especially when compared to the Schengen visa which gives them access to most of the EU. Why should they come here instead? If we want international tourists to spend their money in the UK, we need to offer a warm welcome and make it easy to get here.

To support domestic and international tourism, the UK also needs to address long-term infrastructure issues. The UK’s rail network is creaking at the seams; outdated airport infrastructure, staff shortages, and strikes adversely affect flights; and according to the RAC, we are in the midst of a pothole crisis, with 60% of drivers surveyed stating that the roads are in a worse state than a year ago. Tourists – wherever they start their journey from – need to be able to get easily, reliably, and affordably to their destination. If Uzbekistan can operate a high speed railway network between its major cities, what excuse does the UK have for outdated services? And in a self-proclaimed developed country such as the UK, tourists expect to be able to communicate with the rest of the world whenever they choose to travel, so boosting rural broadband and mobile phone coverage must be a priority. 



Sophie Ibbotson is the founder of Maximum Exposure Ltd, a tourism and culture development consultancy focused on emerging destinations. She read Oriental Studies at Clare College, Cambridge, and has a particular interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia, where she has worked since 2008. You can follow her social media here.