Rich Harrill is a tourism and hospitality expert from South Carolina with more than 30 years of experience. He recently volunteered with ACDI/VOCA through the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Read about Rich’s experience below and learn how to volunteer with ACDI/VOCA.
This World Tourism Day, I am reflecting with satisfaction and pride about the friendships and partnerships forged during my time in Kyrgyzstan as an ACDI/VOCA volunteer this summer. As a tourism expert with 30 years of experience, I was eager to assist a country that I knew to have significant assets and attractions.
Although the original assignment was to assist a leading tour company, NoviNovad, with building business-to-business and farmer-to-farmer relationships, I anticipated that my presence and recommendations would have far-reaching implications for marketing and development. Conversely, I expected that my visit would be rewarding for me individually—as an advisor and team member, increasing my knowledge of a region few Westerners had ventured to as tourists. I excitedly purchased a new pair of hiking boots to commemorate my voyage into the World’s Last Frontier.
And I was not disappointed; Kyrgyzstan is 96 percent mountainous, making it a natural destination for adventure tourism and geo-tourism. These assets are world-class, in addition to Lake Issy-Kul, a place where hikers, bikers, trekkers, and climbers can take off the boots, shed the backpack, and relax by the beach before hitting the trail again.
During my visit, I was even more excited to find community development elements, which must be in place for any successful tourism product. First, there is an excellent network of farms and guest houses around the country with access to recreation amenities and breathtaking views.
Kyrgyzstan: A Land of Jams, Meats, and Mountain Vistas
Waking up in a mountain lodge overlooking the walnut forests of Arslanbob Valley is etched in my memory. Breakfast of local jellies, jams, and, of course, walnuts, provided ample fuel for a day of hiking and exploring. From village to village, residents were actively involved in the timeless art of beekeeping, adding delicious additions to plentiful fresh breads and jams. The meats, primarily beef and lamb, are also fresh—so fresh that if you are not careful your car might encounter a kind of barnyard “traffic jam,” as these herds are led across highways into pristine mountain pastures.
When I returned, my stock joke reflecting local hospitality and the quality of the food was, “Everywhere I turned, someone was handing me a kabob!”
It is the Kyrgyz people who are making the difference through a commitment to agritourism—bright, enthusiastic, hardworking, and overwhelmingly friendly. As a South Carolina native accustomed to Southern hospitality, Kyrgyz hospitality is among the best in the world. The country of Kyrgyzstan truly embodies the spirt of the hospitality and tourism we think of when we celebrate World Tourism Day.
As a tourism expert, I consider myself lucky to have traveled to more than 50 countries. However, few countries exhibit such potential and the belief in agritourism as an economic development strategy as Kyrgyzstan. I will continue to volunteer with ACDI/VOCA and return to Kyrgyzstan to turn this tourism vision into reality.
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Learn more about the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program here.