Azerbaijani Tourism A Success Story that Continues to Unfold

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BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire, the Pearl of the Caucasus. It is a country of contrasts where Eastern traditions and living history meet Western progress.

Writing about Azerbaijan, regardless of the subject matter, a mandatory reference is the fall in the price of oil and the consequent devaluation of the manat five years ago. This event has been the milestone that forced the Azerbaijani government to declare new strategies for decreasing dependence on the oil industry, including the development of the tourism sector, so far one of the fastest-growing fields of the country’s economy.

Considering the effectiveness of the tourism sector to recover the economy in Azerbaijan, stakeholders are able to provide information to the public. This article is a brief analysis of the government’s strategy to overcome the difficulties raised with the sudden expansion of this industry, and the continued strengthening of its growth.

The figures presented by the State Border Service for the year 2019, show the success of the tourism industry: 3,170,400 foreigners from 193 countries visited Azerbaijan, which is 11.3% more than in 2018. Visitors come from traditional countries of origin, such as the bordering countries, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Gulf countries. Also, last year there was an increase in the number of visitors from non-traditional countries, like Israel, India, China, Egypt, Malaysia, Hungary, Poland, the United Kingdom, Philippines, Spain, South Korea, and Germany. The main activities that summon these visits were leisure, business and visiting friends and relatives, and to a lesser extent, medical and religious tourism.

The success of this strategy has international recognition. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) produced the publication, “Economic Impact of Travel and Tourism to the Economy of Azerbaijan in 2018” and illustrates the direct contribution of Travel & Tourism to GDP in AZN 2,756.1 mn (USD 1,596.8 mn), 4.2% of total GDP in 2017. Additionally, in 2017, Travel & Tourism directly supported 173,500 jobs (3.8% of total employment), therefore with these figures, Azerbaijan ranks amongst the world’s top 20 high potential countries.

Elnare Allaqiyeva, Ph.D. student, a lecturer at Azerbaijan Tourism and Management University and writer of the book, Tarixi və mədəni turizm, Historical and Cultural Tourism, tells the background of this success story when in 1999 the Milli Məclis, Azerbaijani´s Parliament adopts the new legislation to strengthen the sector. Once the legal framework was agreed, the government designed two State Programmes on Tourism Development: 2002-2005 implemented mainly in Baku, and 2010-2014 focused in six Regions (Shaki-Zagatala, Shamakhi-Gabala, Guba-Khachmaz, Lankaran-Masalli, Minghachevir-Naftalan, and Ganja-Tovuz.) Finally, in 2016, the “Strategic Roadmap for specialized tourism industry in the Republic of Azerbaijan” was adopted.

Azerbaijan Tourism and Management University (ATMU) has become one of the most fundamental facilitators in this strategy, contributing to training specialists in the tourism sector. In 2007, ATMU signed an educational agreement with University of Applied Sciences in Austria (IMC Krems), an “Educational Exchange in the Field of Tourism” that allows Azerbaijani students to apply for a program and be awarded diplomas of both ATMU (national) and IMC Krems (international) after their four years’ bachelor graduation.

Along with all these regulations, the excellent results are due to Azerbaijan’s policy of becoming a premium MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions.) It begun with the LVII Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, whose preparation brought international hotel brands — followed by the first European Games in 2015 and the investment of at least 890 million euros that allowed the construction of modern facilities and sports complexes. Not forgetting, the European Grand Prix, a Formula 1 race held annually on the Baku City Circuit from 2017.

Other notable international events have been initiated by the Baku Process for the promotion of intercultural dialogue (biannual since 2008), the 2011 World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, M.A.P. Festival (music, art, performance – annual since 2017), the 2017 IV edition of Islamic Solidarity Games, the 2017 European Chess Championship, the 2018 Gymnastics World Cup, the 2018 BMX World Championship, the 2019 UEFA Champions League final, and the 2019 XVIII Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. Currently, Baku is preparing for hosting more than 5000 delegates in the International Astronautical Congress in 2022, under the theme Global Challenges and Opportunities: Give a Chance to Space.

The Unique Selling Proposition of Azerbaijan is well summarized by Barbara Fritz, Owner of AGEG Tourism for Sustainability in the report Concept on Sustainable Development of Ecotourism in Azerbaijan, published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in May 2019: • Azerbaijan is part of the Caucasus Ecoregion, an isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas, which serves as a bridge linking Europe and Asia and boasts nine of the world’s climate zones. • Around 10% of the country’s territory is declared to be protected areas in 10 National Parks, 11 State Nature Reserves, and 24 Nature Sanctuaries, and the project to extend it to the first Marine Protected Area in the Caspian Sea. • The flora of Azerbaijan includes 4,500 higher species, out of which 200 national and 920 Caucasian endemics. • Azerbaijan has a rich diversity of fauna, with an estimated 14,000 insects, 100 fish, 9 amphibians, 54 reptiles, 394 birds, and 107 mammal species. Endangered and threatened wild animals that can only be found in this region, such as the Caucasian leopard, the Caspian seal, the Subgutturosa gazelle, and the Eurasian Lynx. • Combination of coastline, the Caspian Sea, and mountainous areas, lakes, and waterfalls. • Natural highlights like the mud volcano’s, the so-called burning mountains, natural springs with thermal and mineral water.

In addition to the natural richness, Azerbaijan has an incredible historical and cultural heritage as part of the Great Silk Road, situated at the crossroads of the geopolitical, economic, and cultural interests of many nations and civilizations; with more than 7,500 natural, archaeological, architectural, and historical monuments, cave paintings, statues of gods and ancient temples. On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s cuisine blends Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavors with a traditional production of organic food, mainly fruits, and vegetables. Traditions include an offer of unique local handicrafts.

Azerbaijani breakfast. Courtesy of Aziza Seyidova, Chief Communications Officer, Pasha Travel

This wealth is unknown by foreigners, who are surprised upon arrival to Azerbaijan; for example, Marco Filipi, an Italian tourist who drove his van from Europe to Baku, who commented that the country exceeded his expectations with the tourist attractions it offers. He found in Baku an exciting and comfortable destination with a variety of activities, with all the advantages of a small city.

Tour operators in the country perform their job accordingly by supporting this government strategy and achieving successful results. Aziza Seyidova, Chief Communications Officer at PASHA Travel, one of Azerbaijan’s longest-serving travel agencies, explains how the business understands that all clients are different and provides the highest level of personal service based on their preferences and specific needs. PASHA Travel analyses the markets before offering specific products to the tourists. Aziza proudly says: “Fortunately Azerbaijan as a destination, offers such a huge range of products so every tourist can find something they are passionate about, whether it is a historical Silk Road route, mesmerizing Atashgah and Yanardag, legendary oil heritage, breathtaking sceneries or anything else they want.”

In 2017, PASHA Travel introduced a “Guide Me In Baku” training initiative together with ATMU. The program teaches a range of presentation skills aimed at giving tourists a fuller, more lively experience as well as a deeper understanding of Azerbaijan’s cultural and historical sites. The project’s other main goal was to attract young foreign language speakers into the field of tourism, helping them to acquire a range of additional qualifications to create a platform for their professional development.

However, the sudden expansion of the sector and the need to provide the service with international standards, present new challenges that must be addressed in the medium and long term if Azerbaijan is willing to continue competing on the global scene as a tourist destination. Madina Hashimli, of the Center for Economic and Social Development (CESD), has identified the main challenges of the industry in the report Azerbaijan’s Tourism Sector – Opportunities and Obstacles (August 2019): 1. The concentration of tourism structures mainly in Baku; 2. Lack of infrastructure in the regions; 3. Lack of flights to and from different international and local destinations; 4. Insufficiency of the accommodations and other types of tourist infrastructure and not having a structured classification system for hotels; 5. Visa requirements for many countries.

Other challenges in the sector have been described by Meridian Integrated Business Solutions Inc., in its Analysis of Regional Tourism in Azerbaijan – Restaurants, Hotels & Wineries, last year: 1. Accommodations and services in Baku are focusing on affluent tourists (33.5%); by contrast, the market for mid-range, two-three-star hotels, boutique, bed-and breakfast-style, and entertainment centers is relatively under-developed. 2. Regarding the staff, there is a lack of workers with knowledge in customer service, foreign language, and tourism information. 3. Regarding the restaurants, they have a lack of knowledge of hygiene and sanitary standards, menu planning, and service provision technics. 4. Regarding the wineries, additional training needs are degustation process management, service provision technics, hygiene and sanitary, project management, risk management, and quality control. 5. Regarding entertainment activities in the regions, there is a lack of maps, brochures, and information on tourist destinations; there are no night-life options, neither rent-a-car options, and taxi drivers do not use taxi-meters. 6. In general, remote areas of Azerbaijan experience poor infrastructure and road conditions, non-reliable internet connection, interruptions in water, and electricity supply.

To address these challenges, first facilitating access to the country, Azerbaijan is expediting processes at land borders. The government is also looking to achieve greater use of its airports, opening up landing rights and offering free services and subsidies to some visiting airlines. Since the start of the year, Azerbaijan has opened up fifth and seventh freedom rights to some 40 countries in Europe, North America, and Asia.

Continuing with government efforts to facilitate access to tourists, the facilitation of the visa system, which is currently expedited and online, stands out. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan should consider lifting the visa requirement for visitors from more countries, based on a reciprocal decision. As was commented by Mr. Wolfgang Manig, German Ambassador to Azerbaijan, in an interview for Azeri Observer Winter Issue 2019, “the current system comprising the e-visa and application forms is not a technical but a psychological threshold which restricts tourists.”

Through a Presidential Decree in 2018, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism was disbanded, replacing it with the State Tourism Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Ministry of Culture. This regulation intended to focus on the tourism industry individually, to boost foreign expertise in the development of new strategies, and to create a tourism brand for Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB) was therefore established, with the primary objective to support the growth of Azerbaijan’s tourism industry and encourage visitors to explore the country’s rich cultural offerings and experience its ancient heritage. The Reserve Management Center has also been recently created, to protect the heritage and legacy of seven reserves in Azerbaijan, while being appreciated by the public at the same time.

Among the type of cultural legacy that these reserves seek to protect are, the Lezgin people, khan palaces, and the Polish heritage in Azerbaijan. As a result of this work the History and Culture Museum of Mountain Jews in the Guba region opened on February 3, 2020, as a sample of the Jewish-Muslim coexistence. The museum contains a collection of Jewish religious literature, as well as books in the Juhuri, a traditional language spoken by Mountain Jews, settled in the eastern Caucasus, primarily in Azerbaijan and the Dagestan Republic of Russia.

Florian Sengstschmid, CEO of Azerbaijan Tourism Board, delivering the opening speech at a media event in Mumbai, India.

Florian Sengstschmid, an international expert who has worked in almost every field within the tourism sector over the past 20 years, CEO of ATB since April 2018, in an exclusive interview with Azeri Observer, explained the current work the Board is focusing on. Currently, the ATB is reviewing all relevant policies impacting on tourism; they drafted a proposal to modify the main tourism law, agreed with the Cabinet of Ministers, and it is ready to be presented to Parliament once it resumes its functions after the early elections on February 9, 2020. This document intends to create a business environment framework for the tourism sector with the best international practices in five pillars: 1. Mandatory classification system for hotels. 2. Mandatory certification process for tour guides. 3. Online guest registration. 4. Tax mechanism. 5. Investment incentives.

Mr. Sengstschmid´s Marketing representatives developed new products last year: – national park experiences; – the web sites https://azerbaijan.travel/ and https://azerbaijanwine.com/; – the biannual magazine Experience Azerbaijan, – and the city-wide official pass, Baku Card that provides visitors with free public transport, entry tickets to selected museums and attractions including discounts and special offers at shops, cafes, and restaurants.

The State Tourism Agency and ATB are working together on developing regional tourism, operating four Destinations Management Organizations: The Mounting Cluster in Guba – Gusar; The Unesco Heritage in Sheki (Balakan to Qax); Ganja covering GoyGol; and Lankaran in the south covering agritourism. These offices are enforcing dialogues between the public and private sectors and working with stakeholder groups. The sector also has international representations, Tourism trade offices in China, Germany, The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and South Korea, and one Media office in London.

As part of its strategy, ATB established a global marketing campaign, Take another look, launched at the 26th edition of Arabian Travel Market – April 2019. The brand positioning and identity is an invitation to attract travelers to consider Azerbaijan from a unique point of view and discover its untold stories and secrets. Its goal consists of doubling the incoming tourist flow by 2023..The road map this year includes promoting the campaign focusing in Germany, Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Great Britain, Korea, and France.

International cooperation agencies in Azerbaijan are also supporting these governmental initiatives. GIZ and USAID are providing expert consultancy to public entities and stakeholders in strengthening Ecotourism and Agritourism industries, with special care on issues of sustainable development and overcoming conflicts of interest such as hunting activities.

It is not an easy task to position Azerbaijan as an international tourist destination. Still, the government, as well as Azerbaijani society, has been making smart decisions with persistent work providing tangible results, mainly in Baku. Now it is time to look beyond the city. Quoting Mr. Florian Sengstschmid, “The future of tourism in Azerbaijan is in the regions, in the diversity of the country. Baku is an amazing destination for city-breaks and MICEs, but it should be just the gate to the regions, where the deep charm of the country really lies.”