BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN — Kyrgyzstan looks set to open its airspace to foreign airlines in a bid to reduce fares and lure tourists to the landlocked nation, but critics say that international competition could be a death sentence for local airlines.
"If the government adopts the project, within two years there will be not one Kyrgyz air transporter [left], regional airports will be closed and more than 1,000 people will lose their jobs," the Kyrgyz Civil Aviation Agency stated in a report.
Currently, foreign airlines rely on a complex system of licenses and special agreements to access Kyrgyzstan's airports. But under the planned "open skies" policy, bureaucratic barriers would be swept away to allow foreign airlines to schedule flights by direct agreement with individual airports.
Some analysts say that can bring only benefits, making the country more accessible to foreign travelers and providing cheaper options for Kyrgyz traveling abroad.
"If we want air tickets prices to decrease, a rise in the number of tourists, and for our citizens to be provided with a higher quality service, then the sky should be open," said Aziz Isa, an analyst at the Central Asian Free Market Institute in Bishkek. "Today, many Kyrgyz people prefer to fly to foreign countries from Almaty [in neighboring Kazakhstan] because the flights are around 30 to 40 percent cheaper than from Bishkek."
Mr. Isa said that "some local companies will break down through competition and become bankrupt, but this is a normal market process."
Few would argue that Kyrgyzstan's aviation industry isn't in need of major reform: All of the former Soviet republic's airlines are blacklisted from flying to the EU because of safety concerns. But critics say that's all the more reason for the government to focus on investing in local companies.
"For us, it is too early for open skies," said Lidia Kim, director of Kyrgyz Trans Avia. "The state hasn't given national transporters a chance to develop. For eight years, our airplanes have been on Europe's blacklist. The skies will only be open when we get off the blacklist. This issue should be solved first."
Industry officials emphasized the importance of Kyrgyz airlines in internal travel. Flights connect the capital of Bishkek and Osh, the main city in the south; the cities otherwise are joined only by a single road that winds through mountains and frequently is blocked by avalanches in winter.
"Internal flights are unprofitable, but we fly to small towns" because authorities require us to do so, said Karim Damin, director of the Kyrgyz airline Avia Traffic Co. "We, therefore, have a social responsibility to make sure there are internal flights."
Others argue the new policy will result in huge job losses that will drive skilled workers abroad.
"Thousands of staff from the ground services, as well as pilots and stewardesses will be out of work, and that would bring a loss of specialists as they have to leave Kyrgyzstan," said Kasen Kutmanaliev of the Kyrgyzstan's Professional Union Aviators. "Undoubtedly, reforms in the aviation industry have come to a head, but I think it is too early to adopt this project yet."
Still, advocates say the open skies policy would bring opportunities for jobs and growth in other areas.
In recent years, there has been a rush to privatize state-owned hotels on Kyrgyzstan's Issyk Kul Lake, which has long been a popular destination for tourists from across Central Asia as well as Russia. Last month the Kyrgyz parliament approved a bill to abolish visa requirements for travelers from 44 countries, including the U.S, Canada and the EU's member states.
"Many tourists cannot visit Kyrgyzstan because of limited air transportation," said Vladimir Komissarov, a representative of the Silk Road Tourism Association in Bishkek. "Most [tourists] visit the republic by transiting through neighboring countries. This [open skies] project will help to raise the quality of air transportation services."
On July 2, Deputy Prime Minister Dzhoomart Otorbayev insisted that the open skies policy would be implemented but said that no time frame was yet in place.
"The open sky project will be realized," he said. "It is a very progressive idea. But now it is necessary to look at legal aspects of this project to exercise judgment in its realization."