Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - The season may be drawing to a close at Central Asian Kazakhstan's Chimbulak winter sports resort, but skiiers and snowboarders are still carving their way down a broad piste framed by the snow-speckled spruces of the Tien-Shan mountains.
After a dip in interest that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, the landlocked region is witnessing a growing number of locals and foreigners head to its abundant mountains to savour the snow.
"Chimbulak is a national treasure," said Cristina Lee, a 26-year-old first-season snowboarder who teaches yoga in the nearby city of Almaty and visits the resort most weekends.
"It is true that I do not have anywhere else to compare it to yet, but I am in awe of it," she said.
While Chimbulak lacks the ring and world class infrastructure of France's Meribel or Whistler in Canada, it is no longer a sad, Soviet-era holdover either.
The resort at over 2,600 metres (8,500 feet) altitude saw millions of dollars of investment ahead of Kazakhstan's hosting of the 2011 Asian Winter Games and was a keystone in Almaty's narrowly unsuccessful bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
According to Chimbulak's administration, it hosted 180,000 ski tourists alone in 2015 and expects more than a third more this year, in spite of an economic downturn.
Yet foreign tourists travelling to the landlocked region may be seeking something more than a resort experience that while steadily improving, remains limited.
"Resorts are getting better but if there are hundreds of kilometres of runs in European resorts, Central Asian resorts might have 20, 25 at a push," said Steven Hermans, who runs the Caravanistan.com website providing regional tourism services.
"What Central Asia really stands out for is back-country adventures. The dry climate makes for a snow with very little moisture content. This is the kind of powder that adventure skiiers and snowboarders live for," Hermans told AFP.
- Going off piste -
For experienced practitioners of the sport who long for the freedom -- and risks -- of virgin snow, Kazakhstan's 95 percent mountainous southern neighbour Kyrgyzstan is emerging as a haven.
Popular off-piste ski adventures in the country range from heliski runs at over 4,000 metres altitude to cross-country skiing around the world's largest natural walnut grove in the town of Arslanbob.
American Ryan Koupal is among the pioneers of the back-country movement in the republic of six million, running an operation that combines alpine sports with overnight stays in nomadic felt tents.
His 40 Tribes company has seen interest in Kyrgyzstan's back-country skiing rise sufficiently to attract coverage on extreme sports shows and in ski journals, while retaining the "far off" tag that more well-travelled back-country destinations have now lost.
"As more and more people hear about Kyrgyzstan's empty world-class mountains it is becoming a place on people's radars for the next big back-country skiing or snowboarding adventure," Koupal told AFP by email.
- Challenges ahead -
Both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have broken with form in closed-off Central Asia by introducing visa-free entry procedures for citizens of economically developed states in an effort to boost tourism in recent years.
Energy-rich Kazakhstan hopes the move will translate into more high-profile visitors such as Prince Harry, whose 2014 sojourn at Chimbulak with then-girlfriend Cressida Bonas was viewed as a major coup for the country.
In the long term, however, the Russia-linked region must hope for more stable economic growth to power a domestic middle class and stable market for the sport, says Hermans of Caravanistan.com.
A final factor key to the industry's future lies beyond the control of the nations in the region.
Experts say that warmer winters threaten greater risks of avalanches while also shortening the season itself.
To Kyrgyzstan's south, the Safed-Dara ski resort in equally mountainous Tajikistan saw a lean year on the back of a mild winter despite resort renovations reportedly costing over $2.5 million.
"There was not much in the way of snow this year, and correspondingly we did not have so many visitors," Zarina Ergasheva, a spokeswoman for the resort told AFP by email.
"We had planned on working until the end of April as snow here used to be thick until the beginning of May. This year, unfortunately, that was not the case."