When it launched in 2018 in the desert of Karakalpakstan, the Stihia techno festival instantly became a hipster must-do. The venue’s haunting backdrop – rusty ships on the former shore of the shrunken Aral Sea – fused ecological awareness campaign, sustainable development, and top DJ talent.
But this year, ravers will not see the traditional venue in the town of Moynaq. The annual festival is moving to a site near Bukhara because of fatal unrest that hit Karakalpakstan last summer.
Tashkent is keeping a close eye on Karakalpakstan after that turbulence.
However, the festival’s move is in no way political, Otabek Suleimanov, Stihia Festival’s producer-in-chief, told Eurasianet. Rather, it is a mark of respect for those who died and suffered in the violence.
“It has nothing to do with politics, nor did I get any state orders to relocate the event,” he told Eurasianet.
On the contrary, government officials were keen for Stihia to run as usual – but he was not.
“It was my personal decision to move festival away from the place where tragic events occurred during the summer.”
Organizers would have had to announce the dates late last year, with memories of the violence fresh, he explained.
Holding a “festive event” like a rave “would clearly be a mark of disrespect to the local population.”
Stihia, loosely translated as “the elements,” will take place in late August and early September at Lake Tudakul, near the tourist mecca of Bukhara.
“The festival’s mission remains the same – boost sustainable development in Moynaq. We were, are and will be committed to this mission,” Suleimanov said.
Stihia’s projects in Karakalpakstan, including a program of training courses for young people, will go ahead as usual.
Suleimanov doubted the move would damage Karakalpakstan’s burgeoning tourist industry, which revolves not around raving but around disaster tourists visiting the shrunken Aral Sea and art buffs exploring the Savitksy museum in Nukus.
Sophie Ibbotson, Uzbekistan’s tourism ambassador and the author of a forthcoming guidebook on Karakalpakstan, agreed.
“Stihia is the reason many people have heard of Karakalpakstan and began considering it as a tourist destination,” she acknowledged.
“However, it was just one long weekend a year, so although it had a high profile and generated attention, the overall economic impact was small. The lasting benefit of the festival is the stimulation of local interest in tourism, a realization that tourists will come to Karakalpakstan and the Aral Sea region in particular, if there are places to stay and things to do.”
Steven Hermans of Central Asia travel website Caravanistan took a similar line. “Few people in Karakalpakstan depend on tourism for a living, and, I could be wrong, but I don't think Stihia was bringing in so many visitors that people's livelihoods would disappear when they stopped coming.”
A less far-flung location is attractive for other reasons, he added. “An apocalyptic wasteland like the Aral Sea provides the perfect backdrop for an all-night rave, but the logistics of setting up in such a distant location are difficult, and fewer visitors will want to travel that far. Bukhara is just much easier, both for organizers and visitors.”
Still, the good news for Karakalpakstan is that Stihia will be back.
After talking to officials who wanted it to go ahead, Suleimanov said, “I promised that we will skip this year, but will return next year.”