ASTANA'S CRYS­TAL BALL

Kaza­khstan cham­pi­ons fu­ture en­ergy sources as it prepares to host Expo 2017

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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 for­merSoviet 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.”

ECO­NOMIC EVO­LU­TION

There’s also plenty of eco­nomic in­cen­tive for the coun­try to rein­vent it­self. Be­ing an oil and com­mod­i­ty­based 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 Ð100 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-and­com­ing 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.”

Left: The im­pres­sive quad­ran­gle of Astana’s down­town area

Clock­wise from

above: Expo 2017’s huge dome un­der con­struc­tion; a ren­der­ing of the whole site with the city cen­tre in the dis­tance; and the or­nate Opera Theatre

From top: An il­lus­tra­tion of the air­port’s clever ex­ten­sion plan; and the main bridge across the Esil River to the old town

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