There is no Santa Claus at the North Pole. He doesn't take off from the top of the world every Christmas Eve behind a fleet of flying reindeer. That's a myth.
He does it from Kyrgyzstan.
At least, he should, according to Swedish engineering consultancy SWECO, which concluded in a December 2007 study that the most efficient starting point for Santa's annual rounds, considering the earth's rotation, location of population centers (being close to China and India helps), and other factors, was in the mountainous Karakuldja region of eastern Kyrgyzstan.
(For the record, Santa would have 34 microseconds for each house, and the reindeer would have to zip along at about 3,600 mph.)
And that's why on a crisp winter day 2,500 meters above sea level, the occasional sound of shushing skiers in the country's Karakol resort is suddenly replaced by tinkling bells, exclamations of "Ho-ho-ho!" and lively, white-bearded men handing out presents, posing for pictures, tasting native dishes, and dancing the Lambada.
Twenty winter icons from 16 countries—from classic, red-clad St. Nicks to Russia's Ded moroz and the native Ayaz-Ata (Grandpa Frost)—gathered here in February for the second annual International Winter Festival of Santa Claus and His Friends, the main event in Kyrgyzstan's campaign to brand itself the world's true home of Christmas cheer.
FATHER CHRISTMAS, GIVE US SOME MONEY
For SWECO, the Santa study served its likely purpose, generating a burst of international press for the firm. For their part, Kyrgyz tourism officials hoping to boost business in the country's breathtaking Tien-Shan mountains were not about to look a gift reindeer in the mouth.
"We've got to do our best to make this world brand settle down in Kyrgyzstan," Turusbek Mamashov, head of the state tourism agency, told journalists at a press conference shortly after the report's release. "Our Kazakh colleagues called to tell us we'd gotten very lucky."
Within days, the agency launched an initiative to promote Kyrgyzstan as "the land of Santa Claus." An unnamed mountain in the Tien-Shan was dubbed Santa Claus Peak. Public-transit riders in the capital of Bishkek were greeted by red-capped drivers, and 200 elite Kyrgyz army troops in Santa garb danced awkwardly around a Christmas tree in the central square. The inaugural Santa festival was held the following February with 10 guests, and a website in Russian and English promotes Kyrgyzstan's claim to Santa year-round.
State officials are counting on Santa to give a jolly boost to existing efforts to draw foreigners to the Tien-Shan and Lake Issyk-Kul, the country's biggest attraction. Tourism has tripled since 2005, with 2.38 million foreigners visiting last year. From 2005 to 2007 tourism revenue grew from $70.5 million to $341.7 million.
Tourism accounted for 4 percent of GDP in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, and even before Kris Kringle dropped into their laps, state officials were ramping up participation in international tourism fairs and advertising on international TV channels like Euronews.
Mamashov credited the first Santa festival with bringing $70 million into Kyrgyz coffers. The upside could get higher still, according to the International Center for Socioeconomic Research in Bishkek, which concluded in a January 2008 analysis that successful implementation of "the Santa Claus idea" could boost annual tourism numbers to 3 million, "which means an additional $200 million for the budget."
Ian Claytor, president of the Kyrgyz Association of Tour Operators, warns about overplaying the Santa hand.
"It is a great opportunity, and we capitalized on it," said Claytor, a Briton who moved to Kyrgyzstan 10 years ago after discovering the country on holiday. Still, he says, "Santa Claus is different. It comes from a different culture and is not really tied to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan maintains the pristine nature, the nomadic lifestyle of the locals, the history of the Silk Road..."
"A country should be promoted in many ways. Let's take another example of a gift: Lonely Planet this year named Kyrgyzstan among 10 top destinations to visit. That [is] another one we should be exploiting."
The government's Santa antics initially aroused a good deal of skepticism among locals, most of whom knew the white-bearded figure only from seasonal Coca-Cola ads. The media ridiculed the campaign as a silly diversion from weightier issues. (The Finns, who have long claimed Rovaniemi in Lapland as Santa's hometown, were none too pleased, either.)
"The news of Santa's most likely starting point being in Kyrgyzstan was announced to the public by representatives of Kyrgyz culture, for whom it is not common to worship one of the Christian saints," said Tamara Nesterenko, a sociologist at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. But now, she added, "the idea is taking root well."
By the end of last year, the Santa campaign was being viewed more benignly, as a vehicle to promote Kyrgyzstan and a lighthearted respite from the economic crisis. The first Santa festival was named among the top 10 events of 2008 in news agency 24.kg's 2008 readers poll, and some 40 media agencies signed up to cover this year's gathering, held 5-8 February.
"Tourism development, together with an opportunity to get to know other customs and traditions, is a good way of integrating into the world's cultural community," Nesterenko said. "It is of great importance that Kyrgyzstan, an independent, democratic country, is not isolated from the rest of the world."
If the government's aim was to motivate a batch of travel cheerleaders for Kyrgyzstan, it seems to be off to a good start. British Santa Ron Horniblew, who acknowledged never having heard of Kyrgyzstan before getting his invite, pledged to talk up the country back home. Nome, Alaska's "Santa Paul" Kudla said he's already received and accepted an offer to come back next year.
The government does not pay Santas to attend or cover flight costs (accommodation, meals, and in-country travel are provided), but it has tapped the large and active international Santa community. Jorgen Rosland, a veteran Danish Santa who has attended both Kyrgyz festivals, helped organize a European contingent this year at the request of the tourism office.
"I expressed interest in the festival [last year] and the next thing I received was an invitation to attend. I immediately got out the atlas to locate just where in the world I was going to go," Canadian Santa Peter Boxall said. "I'm 75 years old and I was as excited as a youngster."
When not making excursions to national parks, dining with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov, or networking with one another, the visiting Santas and Father Frosts entertained crowds that were more smiling than skeptical. A Kyrgyz actor dressed as St. Nick frolicked in the surf of Issyk-Kul despite the sub-freezing temperatures. Eccentric "mambo artist" Paradise Yamamoto, the first Japanese member of the World Santa Claus Congress, handed out teddy bears with, for reasons that were not clear, bloodied paws. Kids of all ages posed for pictures.
"Look at the crowd. Everybody has come out to see us," said Betty Horniblew, U.K. Santa Ron Horniblew's wife. "We're delighted to be here. The scenery is beautiful and people are very friendly and hospitable."
Boxall, who heard about the Kyrgyz festival from Danish Santas online, was similarly enthusiastic. "Language was no barrier," he said by e-mail after returning home. "At one of the bus stops I saw three elderly ladies walking. I gave them each a Santa hug. They were excited and happy and I was thrilled to have met them."
Still, even people whose job it is to be jolly could see room for improvement. One Santa suggested the buildings in Kyrgyzstan could benefit from a splash of paint, another recommended more restrooms along the tourist routes, and Boxall said some road resurfacing wouldn't hurt.
Government and travel-industry officials also acknowledge a need for smoother visa procedures, and more and better hotels and resorts.
"Most people in Europe are not used to coming to faraway places, but Kyrgyzstan has a lot of potential—nice mountains, nice scenery, nice people," said Marcel Schiesstr, a Swiss engineer working on a water project in the city of Karakol who attended the festival. "They should take their chance by providing tourists with safe conditions, good accommodation, and offering more publicity."