International Cultural Forum "Central Asia at the Crossroads of World Civilizations" Held in Khiva

The team of the Brussels-Uzbekistan Friendship Group participated in September to the International Cultural Forum “Central Asia at the Crossroads of World Civilizations”, held in the historic city of Khiva under the auspices of UNESCO.

 

The forum was organised in order to highlight and revisit the rich history and heritage of this region using them to draw lessons and contribute to sustainable peace and development. To this end, the forum brought together experts from over fifty countries as well as representatives from The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), International Council On Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), International Organisation of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY), Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) Cultural Institute.

 

A declaration was adopted at the conclusion of the forum which, among other points, recognises that the International Cultural Forum provided a unique opportunity for open and comprehensive discussions on a wide range of issues, including the contribution of commercial, scientific and cultural exchanges to the development of the heritage of Central Asia, the contribution of the cultural and scientific heritage of Central Asia to the development of modern social and human sciences, the contribution of the region’s cultural heritage as a solid basis for regional dialogue and cooperation, the contribution of cooperation and exchanges through social and human sciences to counter the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sustainable development of Central Asia, and the importance of building promising relationships based on strategic partnership.

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Co-founders of the Brussels-Uzbekistan Friendship Group Barbara Dietrich and Alberto Turkstra delivered presentations in the breakout session devoted to the theme of “Collaboration and exchanges through social and human sciences for countering the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the sustainable development of Central Asia”.

 

Barbara Dietrich’s speech touched upon the theme of “Peace and Sustainability through Cultural Diplomacy”. Ms Dietrich argued that long undervalued, the role of culture and cultural heritage as a crucial element in sustainable development and peacebuilding efforts is gaining increasing centrality in the international discourse and practice

 

The inter-dependence between culture, peace and development is increasingly proven as a way to contribute to wider social and economic aspects of development.

However, the 2030 SDG Agenda falls short of explicitly acknowledging the central role of cultural heritage as both a driver and enabler of sustainable development! We should not forget that cultural heritage enables social cohesion, fosters socio-economic regeneration and poverty reduction, strengthens social well-being, improves the appeal and creativity of regions, and enhances long-term tourism benefits.

 

Culture, Ms Dietrich remarked, is also one of the central pillars in the new EU Strategy for Central Asia, which is in place since 2019. In this region, where half of the population ins under 30 years of age, employment creation in the cultural sphere is particularly relevant in the post-pandemic recovery period.

 

Mr Alberto Turkstra’s presentation centered on the theme of tourism in the post-COVID 19 period and the potentials for the creation of a common market for tourism in the Central Asian region. He argued that Uzbekistan and Central Asia are well positioned to benefit from long-term tourism trends once global travel recovers, as well as to utilize tourism to drive sustainable economic growth – if certain challenges are addressed.

 

Enabling factors that have facilitated tourism inflows one can highlight the liberalization of visa regimes, the reopening of border crossings and the resumption of direct flights between capitals and the development of a new multiple-entry Silk Road Visa (between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) inspired by the European Union’s Schengen Agreement.

At the same time, there are certain roadblocks that need to be overcome in order for the region to capitalise on its touristic potential. The five Central Asian republics need to increase cooperation to upgrade their infrastructure and transportation linkages, facilitate cross-border travel through harmonized visa standards (at the moment we see that visa requirements vary notably between the countries).

Expansion of the range of tourism services should give a central role to the private sector. Small and medium-sized businesses offer most tourism services in the region, and are the engines of innovation and job creation, but often lack resources. Government agencies and the private sector need to collaborate to help these businesses meet international quality standards and to making the region more competitive.

Given its international recognition, the Silk Road provides the ideal branding for the Central Asia’s tourism, supported by targeted social media campaigns. While Central Asian countries don’t have big budgets to market tourism, they can benefit from joint promotion and cost-sharing, building regional synergies and creating greater opportunities for economies of scale and optimization of resources.

A single system of professional and training of personnel could be implemented to address the gaps between industry practices and tourism education and training provision, and developing integrated regional trainings and programs for both public and private tourism stakeholders, maximizing the use of digital technologies in the process.

 

Special attention needs to be paid to market intelligence. This includes development and implementation of common methodologies for data collection and production of tourism statistics visitors’ spending patterns, and promotion of partnerships between public and private tourism stakeholders in the region for conducting joint market research to better understand customers’ preferences, desired experiences, and needs.

 

Looking into the future, there should be a strong focus on sustainability and responsible travel. An increasing share of tourists are paying more attention to the environmental footprint and the socioeconomic impact of their travel activities. Tourists increasingly prefer destinations and businesses with clear sustainability policies, and other circular economy solutions, and there is a growing interest in tourism products and experiences that can help protect the environment and bring tangible benefits to local communities.

 

Also, quality will need to be prioritized over quantity. Traditionally, countries’ tourism strategies and actions have been oriented toward increasing the number of visitors to accelerate economic growth. However, a vast influx of tourists can severely burden countries, particularly those lacking the necessary infrastructure and capacities to effectively manage it. This can have a detrimental social and environmental impact and can result in a negative experience for visitors.

 

In conclusion, Mr Turkstra emphasized that recent developments towards greater regional cooperation and integration and Central Asia alongside the inherent potentials of CA provide a unique opportunity for setting-up and promoting a sustainable and resilient tourism model, which delivers benefits to the local economies and citizens.

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