Features

Steppe forward: Business in Astana

1 Nov 2016 by Tamsin Cocks

Astana is an architectural playground. The Kazakh Steppe’s vast terrain has been used as a canvas to showcase an eclectic mix of engineering feats, with avant-garde marvels ranging from the space-age Khan Shatyr shopping mall – a giant transparent tent – to the cycling helmet-shaped velodrome, both projects by eminent British architect Norman Foster.

Filled with contemporary masterpieces, the new capital of Kazakhstan delivers a clear message of modernity from the leading Central Asian nation. Not yet 20 years old, Astana has been somewhat overshadowed by the former capital Almaty, which continues to reign as the financial and cultural centre and home to the primary international airport. But things are set to change.

Driving in from the airport, my first glimpse of the surreal cityscape is an idiosyncratic trio of structures along Tauelsizdik Avenue. The stunning white Hazrat Sultan Mosque stands across from the angular marble National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan while the giant glass Palace of Peace and Accord pyramid floats in the distance. Across the city’s long quadrangle of amazing edifices there’s a hint of Dubai-meets-Vegas, with the gleaming Kazmunaigaz building, the golden globe-topped Baiterek tower and a Renaissance-style opera house. Like it or loathe it, it’s an undeniably impressive sight to behold.

Expo 2017 globe construction

Full of energy

Next year, however, all eyes will be focused on one massive glass sphere. The iconic ten-storey orb will form the centre of Expo 2017, a major annual international exposition to be held in Astana from June 10 to September 10. It’s the first time a former-Soviet Union country has been the host nation for such an event, and the gravity of the subject matter is guaranteed to demand serious global attention. The theme centres on: “Future energy; solutions for tackling humankind’s greatest challenge”, a topic already high on the agenda for modern nations.

Alisher Pirmetov, first deputy chairman of Astana Expo 2017, spoke of the awesome responsibility of such a project, saying: “This subject is very relevant for all civilisations in light of the ecological problems throughout the world. Gaining a rational understanding of our natural resources is the most important topic right now.

“Our view is that Expo 2017 will be the place to view all the modern technologies to come with regards to replenishing energy resources and alternative energy sources. This is the place where we shall look into the future and see what revolutionary technologies we’re going to use. Expo 2017 will not only reveal current problems, but will give the opportunity to offer solutions.”

The dome is the “pearl of the expo”, and will be the largest sphere in the world with a diameter of 80 metres – overtaking the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. Inside, eight floors will be dedicated to exhibitions on different sources of renewable energy: wind, solar, kinetic, biomass, space, hydroelectric, geothermal and nuclear. An international committee comprising two Nobel Laureates has overseen the projects.

Orbiting the magnificent globe, the Astana Expo City 2017 sprawls out across 174 hectares. Designed by US firm Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture, the site comprises 28 buildings, including 18 U-shaped international pavilions, the largest shopping mall in Central Asia, a 1,000-seat theatre, a five-star hotel, plus office and residential blocks.

In keeping with the theme, green energy sources have been weaved into the construction of the project, such as photovoltaic panels to control the temperature (Astana suffers from extreme lows in winter of up to -30˚C, and can reach a scorching 40 degrees in summer) as well as wind turbines and geothermal technology to generate clean electricity. Future technologies employed will aim for each building to run on 30-40 per cent renewable energy, while some buildings will enjoy up to 75 per cent clean energy.

At a time when scientific reports increasingly suggest environmental issues are reaching critical levels, the convention is big news for all. But Expo 2017 is also an important chance for Kazakhstan – and Astana in particular – to showcase its new modern identity on the global stage and position itself as a future centre for green energy.

There is some irony in the fact that Kazakhstan’s economy is so heavily dependent on oil and gas, but at the same time this reveals the bold ambitions fostered by the country’s leaders. First deputy Pirmetov states: “We are known for having rich deposits of natural energy but we absolutely support advancing the use of renewable resources. In our country there are already a lot of projects under way on natural energy. We hope Expo 2017 will breathe new life into these projects that are already running.”

Rendering of the Expo 2017 site with the city centre in the distance, Astana

Economic evolution

There’s also plenty of economic incentive for the country to reinvent itself. Being an oil and commodity-based economy has created serious problems, with wild fluctuations in world commodity prices causing a major devaluation of the currency. This has not been helped by the Kazakh tenge also being pegged to the unstable Russian rouble.

Pirmetov discussed how the government is managing the costs of the project – which is reported to have risen to US$3 billion – by turning largely to local companies to dampen the impact of currency devaluation. This has in turn stimulated the local economy, with 254 local firms contracted so far. Sponsorship from both local and international firms has also contributed a sum of 100 million (US$111.5 million) to the project.

Organisers are expecting between three and five million visitors, with up to 15 per cent coming from international destinations and participation already confirmed by 101 countries including Germany, Japan, Singapore and the UK – although notably both the
US and China have yet to confirm their attendance.

This kind of international exposure is a major step forward for Kazakhstan. The Bureau International des Expositions, the governing body for international exhibitions, stated: “Expo 2017 is more than just an exhibition. It is an event that will put Kazakhstan in the international spotlight. Kazakhstan will host delegations from over 100 countries, strengthening diplomatic relations, promoting discussions on international trade and commerce and hosting debates on key global topics.

“The Expo will establish Kazakhstan as a global leader on the challenge of future energies and it will serve as a catalyst for Kazakhstan’s transition to a ‘green’ economy. It will also have a multiplier effect by increasing foreign investment, international trade and tourism.”

Sergey Kuyanov, director of public relations for Astana Expo 2017 said: “One of the most important goals for Astana Expo 2017 will be the development of inbound tourism to Kazakhstan. We have already signed several major contracts with large international tour operators to sell Kazakhstan packages for 2017.” Additionally, last year the country announced a new visa-waiver programme for 19 nations: Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UAE, the UK and the US.

Accommodating the influx of visitors has spurred major development in the hotel industry, with 24 new hotels planned, including major international brands such as Ritz Carlton, St Regis and Kempinski, scheduled to open in 2017 and joining the likes of Hilton, Rixos, Ibis and Radisson that already have a presence. Back in 2014, the city welcomed a brand-new Marriott Astana, and general manager Philippe Mahuas revealed to the Astana Times that the benefits of Expo 2017 could already be felt two years ago: “As soon as Astana won the bid for Expo 2017, work with different countries picked up visibly, especially with energy and environmental associations.”

The mission continues

After the Expo ends in September, the state intends to keep the momentum going, with plans to repurpose the site as the new financial centre of the country, relocating central banks from Almaty and setting up financial institution headquarters in the vacant lots, as well as university departments, research centres and a dedicated energy legacy centre. As such, serious infrastructural investment is under way not just to facilitate the expo, but also to ensure the successful longevity of the venture and more firmly cement Astana’s position as the capital and the epicentre of Central Asian affairs.

An important aspect of this is the creation of a second terminal at Astana International Airport (TSE), with the aim of establishing it as Kazakhstan’s primary port. Paolo Ricciotti, CEO of Astana Airport, explained: “The original design of the airport had a capacity of 600,000 – we’re now nearly at 900,000 and increasing as the centre of attention shifts from Almaty to Astana.”

Like the rest of the city some innovative construction has been taking place. Due to space constraints, the original plan was to build an entirely new international airport and leave the current one as a domestic terminal. However, time pressures and a clever design have allowed authorities to expand vertically, building a unique double-layer docking system while improving the existing runways.

A dedicated business terminal was also completed this year accommodating 40 business jets. It is equipped with comfort rooms, meeting rooms, showers, an arrival lounge and private limousine service. In addition, creaking baggage systems and old-fashioned check-in counters have been replaced with state-of-the-art technology, fully automated
online baggage systems and air bridges. The new airport will be able to handle four million passengers – with forecasts suggesting this should comfortably serve capacity until 2050 as the country expects modest growth.

“Growth potential is quite limited,” reveals Ricciotti. “We’re never going to become something like Dubai, so we would never think of offering competition for Hong Kong to London via Astana. But definitely we will offer competition for Hong Kong to Kiev via Astana. What we’re looking for is transfer business, connecting major cities with secondary cities.”

Peter Foster, CEO of Air Astana, Kazakhstan’s national carrier, confirmed that the airline’s future plans focus on consolidating its dominance in Central Asia: “We continue to be the strongest airline in this region by a country mile. We’re definitely faring best in the region thanks to protection from a good reputation where others have gone under. For example Transaero, the Russian carrier, was regarded as a massive up-and-coming force in the aviation industry, but they went bankrupt last year.”

Moving forward, the plan is to further concentrate on their role as an intermediary airline rather than look to broaden the route network, revealed Foster: “Too many routes are less than daily at the moment – which is bad for connectivity, very difficult for network planners to schedule the connections sales managers want with such low frequencies. So the intention is to thicken up those routes that have long-term potential – in particular, routes to St Petersburg, Tblisi and Kiev have performed well for us.”

Additionally, Kazakhstan’s key location on the “new Silk Road” (the Eurasian land route network called “One Belt, One Road” by China) gives Air Astana a natural base to take advantage of East-West links, and particularly focus on the China market. As Ricciotti says, “China presents a fantastic opportunity and Astana is a natural gateway. I’m a big believer that the 250 million people in the western part of China would be an easy target for transfer traffic. Air Astana started transfers from Urumqi initially, but I would be looking closely at Chengdu.”

Fleet modernisation is also taking place, helping to bolster Air Astana’s status as a symbol of the “new” Kazakhstan. The airline received its first A321 in September, with ten more on order, to replace the ageing B757 fleet completely by 2019, while retrofitting existing aircraft will see improvements such as upgraded IFE and the introduction of wifi.

As the “Official Air Carrier of Expo 2017”, and a major sponsor, the airline will be giving a free Expo pass to every passenger who comes into Astana during its three-month duration. Foster is optimistic: “We look forward to supporting what will be a fascinating and enjoyable extended event, as Astana opens its arms to the world.”

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