Trekking in corona times

Corona brought a big blow to the tourist industry around the world. The tourism sector of Tajikistan is not left unaffected either. Every single homestay we have visited lately shares one and the same story – the tourists have largely disappeared. Rooms remain empty. The income has dried up. The hiking trails remain nearly completely free of tourists. The abrupt corona pandemic strongly impacted those relying on tourism, as we find out each time we move around in the mountains these days.

Trekker with backpack hiking on a small trail in the Pamir Mountains

Corona strikes. The whole world is on fire. At first glance, Tajikistan seems to be spared however. When flying in, a corona test taken right before the customs is the last reminder of a world full of restrictions and measures. All masks and social distancing are gone as soon as you leave the airport. As a visitor from abroad, the first walk into a restaurant or supermarket without a mask feels almost strange.

As normal as life seems to be in the big city, so different is the experience when you go into the mountains. The number of tourists has fallen sharply. Understandably, there is a general reluctance of tourists to visit exotic destinations again. Despite Tajikistan being open for tourism, we rarely encountered any other tourist either while trekking in 2020 and so far also 2021.

Only sparsely, foreigners still visit the Fann Mountains these days. The deeper you head into the more remote parts of Tajikistan, the more deserted it gets. In the heyday, even a small village like Bulunkul deep in the heart of the Pamir Mountains had known moments when it accommodated more than 40 tourists in a single day – a number nearly exceeding the amount of inhabitants. Those days are unimaginable now when you move through the Pamirs right now...

Although tourism in Tajikistan is still small-scale, the mountain regions had become more dependent on the extra income of tourist by-passers. More and more people invested in accommodation at home or transport services. It all made sense as more tourists started flocking into even the more remote parts of the Pamirs. These investments are not paying themselves back yet, leaving the people with more worries than profit.

Isolated house in Javshangoz in the Pamir
This new homestay in Javshangoz in the Pamir Mountains was finished in 2019. An ideal moment to invest in tourist accommodation it seemed, but the timing turned out to be rather unfortunate.

The impact of the corona crisis is reaches further than just the short-term financial consequences. Local guides have seen drying up their income and start seeking salvation elsewhere. Especially good guides with a good command of English can manage to do so. The loss of good guides will mean that the tourist sector will need time to recover.

The corona pandemic not only affects the people relying on the trekking industry. The impact of the crisis in Tajikistan is much wider. Prices of basic needs rise throughout Tajikistan. Many assiduously try to get to Russia to get an income. The re-establishment of flights to Russia brought about a run on tickets. Ticket prices shot through the roof with a single fare costing over $1000. When considering an average monthly income of around $200 in Tajikistan, this clearly illustrates the far-reaching despair that the corona crisis produced.

High view over Yashilkul Lake in the Pamir Mountains
Numerous people live solitary lives in the Tajik Mountains, for instance people manning meteorological stations or water monitoring sites like the one here on the right side of the image. The visit of tourists every now used to bring some variation to their days. Not anymore...

The start of the corona crisis in 2020 brought an abrupt end to tourism industry in Tajikistan. As the situation improved worldwide throughout the first half of 2021, hopes were up for a return to normalcy in the late season. The uprise of new variants brought a quick end to this. Tajikistan was also not spared and is experiencing a second wave that started in the end on June. For now, all hopes on a normal trekking season are shifted to 2022.

Fore sure, Tajikistan is already open for tourism without a need for a lengthy quarantine. The visa process appears to become easier again, although still somewhat slower than usual. From now on, every visitor is great support the local homestay owners. And not unimportantly, now you really have unique opportunity to have the mountains all for yourself!