Why Medeu and Shymbulak are Kazakhstan’s winter wonderland


Just a 45-minute drive from downtown Almaty, on the southern outskirts of Kazakhstan’s cultural and business hub, the Medeu skating rink (at 1,691 metres, the highest in the world) and the Shymbulak ski resort should be high on the bucket list of every winter sports lover.

© Alberto Turkstra

In December 2022, Medeu skating rink is celebrating its 50th anniversary. When it was inaugurated in 1972, it became one of the largest artificial unroofed ice rinks in the world, and has been used throughout the decades for a variety of Winter sports including speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey.

During a recent visit to Almaty, I had the pleasure to visit the area and to learn what makes the conditions at Medeu so ideal. The location of the rink nestled in the MaloAlmaty gorge isolates it from strong winds; it enjoys optimal levels of solar radiation and as a result of its high altitude (and consequent lower air pressure), it allows skaters to achieve higher speeds. Lastly, the use of pure glacial water provides for the ideal conditions of the ice. The skating rink is also used for recreational purposes, with skating sessions held throughout the day and on some days in the evenings as well. The skating rink and surroundings provide Almaty families and visitors alike the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of big city life.

© Alberto Turkstra

From Medeu, one can take road or the cable car straight to the Shymbulak ski resort, Central Asia’s largest and most advanced skiing centre containing all the necessary infrastructure including hotels, catering facilities, bars, restaurants, etc to consider it a world-class resort.

© Alberto Turkstra

In preparation for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, which Kazakhstan hosted, extensive reconstruction work was carried out on the ski resort. The total length of the runs has been more than tripled to over 20 kilometres of slopes for all levels, from beginners to advanced. Furthermore, the resort has a range of advantages, including a lengthy snow season and an average seasonal snowfall which exceeds the amount of snow in many alpine resorts in Europe. With the arrival of Spring and the melting of the snow, the area becomes an ecotourism hotspot and a hiker’s paradise.

© Alberto Turkstra

Tourism recovery after Covid-19

In recent years, the Kazakh government has been actively investing in tourism development and promotion, under the Programme for the Development of the Tourism Industry for 2019-25, designed to increase the quality and quantity of tourist services and products and promote the tourism potential of Kazakhstan as a year-round destination for both domestic and international travellers. To strengthen Kazakhstan’s positioning in the tourism market by 2025, a series of key performance indicators have been set including, inter alia:

  • Increase the contribution of tourism to the country’s GDP from 5.7% to 8%;
  • Increase the number of international tourists from the 830,000 to 3 million;
  • Increase tourism investment from EUR 700 million to EUR 1.4 billion.

Significant work has already been carried out in terms of the simplification of visa procedures, air connectivity links and construction of high-quality accommodation. To boost tourism in the post-pandemic period, Kazakhstan has recently lowered the minimum investment threshold for investors in the tourism industry to be eligible for government subsidies (612.5 million Tenge – EUR 1.082 million, an amount far lower when compared to other industries). Furthermore, this year has seen the easing of COVID-19 related restrictions which had been in place since 2020 for foreign nationals. This means that citizens of 73 countries – including all EU Member States – have the right to visit Kazakhstan (for up to 30 days, in the most cases) without needing to obtain visas or permits from the Interdepartmental Committee (IDC).

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