Umeda Kurbanbekova has the rare distinction of being well-known as a female leader in Tajikistan’s tourism sector, where she works hard to improve the quality of life for communities in the country’s remote mountainous regions.
Umeda found a career in tourism by accident. In 2001, she agreed to pitch in when a friend, the head of the Republican Council for Tourism and Excursions of Tajikistan, asked for help with paperwork. Upon hearing the stories and seeing the inspired eyes of tourists returning from excursions, however, Umeda knew she wanted to play a larger role. A true daughter of the mountains, she wanted to share Tajikistan’s stunning landscapes firsthand as a tour guide.
As Umeda notes, it is not easy to be a woman entrepreneur in the country's tourism sector. Women entrepreneurs often work in sales or the production of goods and services – it is unusual to see a woman behind the wheel of an SUV, guiding groups of tourists on mountain hikes and climbs. As Umeda gained new skills as a guide, she often faced misunderstandings and confronted stereotypes on all sides.
She says these experiences only strengthened her resolve.
Umeda also found that many of the challenges she experienced in her work were common across the tourism sector. "On the one hand, there was a low level of demand for tourist services. But on the other hand, it turned out that we had very few developed tourist products to offer," she explains.
The COVID-19 pandemic period only compounded these challenges, pushing Tajikistan’s tourism sector to its limits. Border closings and a steep drop in tourism significantly impacted livelihoods, forcing companies to think creatively and shift their planning to the post-pandemic season, which they hoped would bring high demand.
It was during this period that Umeda began working with USAID. “During the pandemic, we met with USAID's Future Growth Initiative staff,” she recalls. “I told them about my plans to develop new routes and advertise our beautiful tourist sites and great Persian-Tajik history." After the meeting, Umeda worked hard to develop the program concept. It was her first experience cooperating with an international organization, but she had a clear and compelling vision.
With USAID’s support, Umeda's team developed four new tourist routes aligned with international industry standards. The “Wandering Star of the Valley of Hustarit” route provides beautiful views of the Fann Mountains and acquaints visitors with local traditions and customs. The “In the Tracks of Silk Road Miners” route highlights beautiful views of the Pamir region and an ancient settlement known for silver mining. The “Lake Victoria” route maps a journey through the Pamir mountains to see the stunning Lake Zorkul, formerly known as Lake Victoria. The “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” route takes visitors along mountain paths rumored to have been taken by Alexander the Great. Each route was created with the active engagement of historians, anthropologists, and folklore experts.
By diversifying her offerings, Umeda was not only able to keep her business open, but she took her company to a whole new level of service and expanded advertising on global tourist platforms. As a result, the 2022 post-pandemic tourism season was a success, with 51 foreign tourists attracted by the company’s new products.
In addition, the new tours employ more than 30 residents of the highland regions, including the women and young people who work in guest houses as guides, cooks, porters, and drivers. Tourist arrivals are expected to increase at an even greater rate in 2023 – meaning new sales and new jobs in mountain communities.
Umeda plans to continue to develop new tourist programs so that visitors with a range of budgets all have the chance to learn about the history and culture of the region. “In the coming future, I want to create a new project on a regional scale so that our neighbors – tour operators from Central Asian countries – can combine their routes into one tour program and create a single platform for foreign tourists.” She envisions a program that will feature the unique landscapes and legends of each country, while highlighting cross-border linkages and shared cultures and histories. “I hope that my colleagues and partners in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will support my idea!”
With support from USAID's Future Growth Initiative, Tajik travel companies have developed new routes and started to promote innovative tourism products on international platforms. As a result, more than 500 tourists used new services and products during the 2022 season. Technical assistance from USAID helps strengthen and diversify company services, attract tourists to Tajikistan, create new jobs in mountain regions, and increase income in vulnerable communities