Responsible tourism in Uzbekistan

The ancient history of Uzbekistan is overwhelming, but slavery is not really something that jumps to mind. However, this is a country with a culture of enforced labour and other human rights issues such as torture and preventing freedom of speech. However, it is also a country that is new to tourism, so the opportunities are there to become a responsible, outward-facing country that respects worldwide democratic principles. Do read up on the issues before you go, but don’t be all gung ho about asking questions when you are there. Politics is still a sore subject, and this is still a police state. Softly softly is the only way. For further reading check out the stunning book, A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Christopher Alexander which reveals the many layers of Uzbek society.


Uzbekistan was the world’s second biggest user of modern-day slavery according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.
The mass production of cotton in Uzbekistan was introduced as a concept during the Soviet era, when its exports became of vast importance to the economy, as they still are today. Sometimes described as ‘white gold’, it is a bit like oil for the Middle East, except it is not going to run out. The ways in which it is produced, however, are highly unsustainable for the land, with intensive farming having destroyed large swathes of valuable rural land as well as drying out the once-vast Aral Sea. In addition, there is a history of enforced labour every year during the harvest, or pahta. This has included the use of child labour, as well as students and state employees who risked losing their jobs if they didn’t contribute. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International are on the cotton case, and there was a recent worldwide call to boycott Uzbek cotton, which many international organisations adhered to. So, in the meantime, you may want to think twice about buying cotton while you are there, or at least look into a more Fairtrade option, which is in its nascence because, of course, the sale of cotton is still vital to small rural producers. Alternatively, dig back into history and buy the beauty that existed well before cotton: handmade silk.
Fairtrade International:
"Across Central Asia, more and more farmers want to join Fairtrade. Dried apricot producers in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would like to sell on Fairtrade terms and we are looking into extending the Standards to this region. But the challenge of finding buyers for their products remains."
What you can do
Read up on the boycott of Uzbek cotton, with a lot of good information on leading ethical fashion website Good On You. And when you read up on it, take this opportunity to assess your pre-holiday consumer frenzy to pack as many t-shirts or summer dresses as possible from shops that support cheap and exploitative labour. Good on You has an excellent app which highlights the ethical practices of leading stores. Also, read up on the work of Amnesty International, which is not only fighting to stop forced labour in Uzbekistan but also to protect general human rights with regards to torture and freedom of expression there. Do consider becoming a member if human rights are important to you on your travels. These guys are fighting for human rights at the coal face all the time, not just holiday time.

And of course, when you are in Uzbekistan, seek out more traditional, ethical souvenirs:

Jonny Bealby, founder of our supplier, Wild Frontiers, says there are plenty of alternatives to cotton:
“The Fergana Valley is a little visited area of Uzbekistan and a good place for shopping, with silk factories to visit where you can watch and learn about the full silk making process. All round Uzbekistan you can buy locally produced pottery and ceramics that are painted by hand and are very beautiful souvenirs. And of course, everywhere in Central Asia is big on their carpets. They can be handmade depending on how much you want to pay and some tourists choose to have them sent home after their trip; you can spend thousands of pounds on a on a carpet if you want to.”

Culture & etiquette

Uzbekistan can be confusing. It is Islamic yet it has a lot of Soviet influences, so it is important to get a bit of a handle on cultural conventions. They seem to be quite fluid in some places but then rigid in others. So, for example, pork won’t be served in many restaurants due to the fact that it is a Muslim country, but you may be given vodka as an aperitif.

The Uzbeks are very hospitable and love to invite visitors into their homes. You will get etiquette gold stars for remembering to remove your shoes, bring a gift and shake everyone’s hands – although some particularly strict Muslim homes don’t encourage shaking women’s hands, so let your hosts lead on that one. As a guest for a meal (and there is nearly always some food offered wherever you go), you may be asked to start the meal and, therefore, offer a toast. If this is the case, always thank your host in your toast. Sometimes there is cutlery, but most Uzbeks eat with their hand. If you join them in this tradition, it is important to remember to eat only with your right hand. Do also accept everything you are offered, even if you don’t fancy another vodka.
Dress sensitively and cover up in rural areas, or people’s homes. The cities are more laid back, but in other parts of the country, respecting the Muslim traditions of keeping shoulders and legs covered is the respectful thing to do. Another important aspect of Uzbek life is respecting the elderly.

In general, do not discuss politics. Uzbekistan was under the rule of Islam Karimov for 27 years, a premiership shrouded in secrets, conspiracies and authoritarianism. It is still more or less a police state and criticising or commenting on the current government is not something people are happy doing.
Mike Pullman, from our supplier Wild Frontiers:
“No one would discuss politics at all in Uzbekistan. Our guide very much toed the party line and said ‘the president’s great and everyone’s very happy with the president, and we have these very fair elections..."


Water can be in short supply in Uzbekistan, for several reasons. One is historic, with the transformation of agriculture from traditional farming to intensive cotton farming. This infamously dried up a vital water supply, Lake Aral, as a result of the diversion of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya Rivers to irrigate the cotton fields. The land around this now dried up lake is also now salinised and unusable for farming. The recent farming of watermelons is not helping the water situation in this desert terrain either.

During the Soviet era, the five countries of the region shared their energy and water resources successfully, but the new borders and politics make this tricky. And a lack of basics like water and energy has, hardly surprisingly, led to local unrest in many areas. According to the World Bank research from 2016, only a quarter of households have access to a centralised sewerage system and, outside Tashkent, many houses depend on public water pumps for their drinking water. Tourism is growing in Uzbekistan, and so we must be careful that by providing tourists with all the water they need, or think they need, local people aren’t being deprived further.

What you can do
Use water sparingly. All common sense stuff really. Shower instead of bath and keep them short. Don’t leave the tap running when brushing teeth, and ask your hosts how best to preserve it for their own uses. Short of taking on the department of the environment, there is little else you can do at this time. On a more positive note, there are scientists who believe that the Aral Sea, or Lake, can be restored. Read the New Scientist for more details.
Linda Maguire from our supplier, Undiscovered Destinations, shares her opinion on the issue of land degradation in Central Asia: “When we were crossing areas of Uzbekistan it looked as though the land was thick with snow because of the salt that lay on top of it. They have a huge problem with salt water and actually with water supply full stop and yet they’re intent on growing things like melons and cotton, which need vast quantities of water to grow. You have to wonder how on earth they can possibly keep up such a supply into the future. The water they do have is very salty, and though they try and wash the salt away to cultivate the land, it always comes back. They do have agriculture, but it’s very hard to see how it is sustainable.”

Responsible tourism tips

Be careful not just of your water consumption, but of generating plastic waste. Jonny Bealby, from our supplier Wild Frontiers, has tips on avoiding using plastic bottles: “If travelling in the summer – which is the only option if linking Uzbekistan with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan - you’ll be drinking a lot of water. Rather than using loads of plastic bottles take a self-filtering water bottle like LifeStraw or Water-to-Go.” Even though you are expected to cover up in this Islamic country, local women do enjoy wearing bright coloured dresses, with plenty of spangle. Same with harem-style pants, so don’t be afraid to pack your flower power summer gear. Or, even better, buy some when you are there. Remove your shoes when entering a mosque or holy site. Shoes are considered dirty and require that the area be washed. And when inside mosques, be careful not to step on any prayer mats. Homosexuality is illegal under Uzbek law and is frowned upon socially, so it is best to avoid public displays of affection. Prostitution is very common in Uzbekistan and tourists are frequently approached. In fact, Uzbekistan is on international watch lists for its shockingly bad record in child sex trafficking as well. Please report any suspect activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen. And if you doubt that anything will be done locally about the issue, contact The Code (short for “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”), an excellent point of contact for this purpose, as it works with tourism providers around the world to combat this horrific but very real side of tourism. As with anywhere in the world, be respectful when photographing people. Take your time to get to know people a little first and then always ask if they are happy for you to take their photo. Taking photographs of police, or around border checkpoints, other police controls, airports etc, is not recommended. It is also not allowed in metro stations in Tashkent, which is frustrating as they have stunning architecture.
Andrew Appleyard, from our supplier Exodus, shares travel tips for men:
“Be wary in hotels, because lots of ladies will approach you. You will think you are the most popular man in the world, but prostitution is rife throughout the country which is not a good thing.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dudarev Mikhail] [People & Culture: Chris Shervey] [Culture & etiquette: Arian Zwegers] [Linda Maguire Quote: Staecker]