Winter Thrills, Summer Chills: Exploring Tufandag Mountain Resort

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In an exclusive interview for Azeri Observer Magazine, Ms. Shebnem Ferman, the Chief Executive Officer of Gabala Hospitality Group unveils the dynamic vision and impactful initiatives propelling Gabala into the forefront of Azerbaijan’s tourism landscape. The interview delves into the diverse offerings of Gabala, from its renowned Tufandag Mountain Resort to the leading theme park, Gabaland and the world-class Gabala Shooting Club. As the driving force behind the group’s success, Ms. Ferman sheds light on its multifaceted contributions to regional development, sustainability, and the broader tourism industry. With her extensive international experience and a forward-looking approach, she shares exciting plans for the future, including the renovation of the Qafqaz Riverside Hotel and other ambitious projects, solidifying Gabala Hospitality Group’s reputation as a trailblazer in the evolving landscape of Azerbaijani tourism.

 BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA

AZERI OBSERVER MAGAZINE

 Question: Gabala is the second most popular tourist destination in Azerbaijan. What unique attractions make it so appealing to visitors?

Answer: Gabala boasts a unique blend of natural beauty, modern infrastructure, and rich cultural heritage that attracts visitors from around the world. One of the primary factors contributing to Gabala’s appeal is its strategic location in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, which provide a stunning backdrop for a variety of tourist attractions. Gabala’s proximity to the capital, Baku, further enhances its allure as a tourist destination. Travelers find it convenient to explore this picturesque region, with new highways, a well-connected train station, and an international airport that facilitate easy access to and from Gabala. Gabala stands out as a hub for tourism industry facilities, especially at the renowned Tufandag Mountain Resort. This resort offers year-round adventure, making it an ideal destination for winter sports enthusiasts and outdoor thrill seekers. The availability of diverse accommodations, special gastronomic experiences, enotourism, and ecotourism further enhance the overall appeal for visitors. Active tourism is a key highlight of Gabala, with opportunities for winter sports, rafting, and shooting sports. The city caters to adrenaline enthusiasts, providing an array of options for those seeking adventure and excitement.

In addition to these offerings, Gabala boasts a rich cultural and historical tapestry. The city is home to ancient Caucasian Albanian heritage. The ruins of the ancient city in the village of Chukhur Gabala, 15 kilometers southwest of Gabala, add a layer of historical significance to the visitor experience. Gabala’s event potential also contributes to its charm, with the city hosting an annual music festival. The Convention Center named after Heydar Aliyev stands out as one of the most beautiful event facilities of Azerbaijan outside of Baku, showcasing the city’s commitment to hosting memorable cultural events. In conclusion, Gabala’s appeal as a tourist destination lies in its breathtaking natural setting, modern infrastructure, diverse tourism facilities, active tourism options, cultural and historical significance, and vibrant event scene. All these factors collectively make Gabala a compelling choice for travelers seeking a unique and enriching experience in Azerbaijan.

Ms. Shebnem Ferman

Q.:  In your opinion, what are the prospects of tourism in Azerbaijan, and what is its role in the diversification of the country’s economy?

A.: Tourism has established itself as a leading industry within the non-oil sector, significantly contributing to economic diversification. The country’s tolerant atmosphere, marked by its multicultural and multiconfessional nature, adds to its allure as a preferred destination. The special flavor of gastro-tourism in Azerbaijan – characterized by organic and fresh fruits, vegetables, and a rich culinary heritage – captures the attention of many tourists. This gastronomic experience adds a distinctive element to the overall tourism appeal. All these elements position Azerbaijan as an emerging and attractive destination for global travelers, contributing significantly to the diversification of the country’s economy. The government’s current initiatives, including special programs and systematic promotion, contribute to this rising interest in Azerbaijan. The future outlook remains bright, with new opportunities emerging, a highly professional approach, and a reported approximately 30% rise in incoming tourists over the past year.

The versatility of tourism products and services not only develops the industry but also supports small- and medium-sized enterprises, creating a positive impact on local communities. Improved infrastructure, including direct flights and simplified visa processes, further bolsters confidence in the tourism sector’s future. Additionally, the potential for the development of tourism in the areas liberated from occupation – Karabakh and Eastern Zangezur, presents new opportunities for growth and exploration. The focus on sustainable and green concepts aligns with global trends and enhances the country’s appeal to environmentally conscious travelers. Azerbaijan’s current brand as an emerging travel destination, coupled with a rising pattern in the number of tourists, reflects the systematic efforts of the government, which comprise a proactive approach that encourages global tourists to discover the unique offerings of the country.

Q.: Can you provide an overview of Gabala Hospitality Group (GHG), including its contributions to the local community and the broader tourism industry in Azerbaijan?

A.: Gabala Hospitality Group was established in 2019 and has quickly become one of the largest and leading tourism management companies in Azerbaijan. GHG’s management philosophy revolves around continuous development, improving products and services, and aligning strategies with the government’s vision for the sector. GHG has emerged in Gabala as a significant contributor to the local economy, becoming one of the largest taxpayers and employers in the region. The company operates in five distinct directions, encompassing a mountain resort, hotels, an amusement park, a shooting club, and water sports facilities. Sustainability is a core value for GHG, evident in our eco-friendly business practices such as waste separation and sorting. The company strongly emphasizes gender equality and is among the few signatories of the Women’s Empowerment Principles in Azerbaijan. Female colleagues play vital roles in decision-making and management, reflecting GHG’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. With over 600 associates, GHG greatly contributes to the tourism industry.

The company collaborates closely with vocational schools, providing students with real-world business exposure and mentorship from professional associates. This hands-on experience helps students grow and develop practical skills, preparing them for careers in the industry. As a member of the Azerbaijan Hotels Association, our colleagues regularly participates in working groups, contributing to the overall advancement of the sector. GHG takes pride in its associates who have received awards from the government, always making sure to acknowledge their excellence in the field. Additionally, the company is working on a special program to adapt its human resources management and work environment to meet the expectations of the younger generation, aiming to make the tourism industry an attractive and rewarding sector for prospective employees.

Q.: Tufandag Mountain Resort (also known as Tufandag Winter and Summer Tourism Recreation Complex) is one of the biggest and most popular ski resorts in the South Caucasus region. What inspired its development, and how has it contributed to tourism in Gabala and the region?

A.: The development of Tufandag Mountain Resort was inspired by a strategic vision to promote winter tourism outside of Baku, which aligns with the government’s broader tourism strategy and regional infrastructure plans. The primary goal of the vision was to establish Gabala as a preferred tourism destination that offers a unique blend of natural beauty, hospitality, and cultural heritage. The initiative to build the resort was fueled by the changing habits and preferences, with are increasingly inclined toward active leisure. This development has not only placed Azerbaijan on the world ski map but has also significantly contributed to positioning Gabala as a prominent tourism hub in the South Caucasus region. The magnificent nature of Gabala, coupled with the warmth of its people and rich cultural and historic heritage, has enhanced the tourism potential of the city.

The professional team behind Tufandag Mountain Resort has meticulously evaluated opportunities and tailored products and services to meet the contemporary demands of visitors. The resort, surrounded by dense forests, offers well-designed ski trails and exclusive advantages, like ski trails around dense forests, presenting itself as a distinctive destination. Safety is a top priority at Tufandag Mountain Resort, which is committed to aligning all operations with local laws and European standards. Regular training sessions are conducted for associates to ensure adherence to safety protocols. The rising interest in Azerbaijan as a tourist destination serves as motivation for the continuous improvement and development of products and services at the resort. The team is motivated to exceed expectations, capitalizing on the growing appeal of the country. The resort stands out by tailoring offers according to market conditions and positioning itself as a haven for those seeking close connection with nature and mountains during any season of the year. This unique combination of nature and professionalism distinguishes Tufandag Mountain Resort as one of the biggest and most popular ski resorts in the South Caucasus region.

Q.: Can you share some details about the services and amenities available at the Tufandag Mountain Resort in the winter and summer seasons?

A.: No matter the time of year, Tufandag Mountain Resort caters to a wide range of interests and preferences, ensuring a memorable and enjoyable experience for every guest. During the winter season, Tufandag Mountain Resort stands out as a premier destination for winter tourism in Gabala. The complex is renowned for its beautiful natural surroundings, attracting guests who seek an immersive experience amongst breathtaking landscapes. The well-groomed and safe slopes make Tufandag a top choice for those seeking a memorable winter getaway. The mountain is fully equipped with state-of-the-art snowmaking systems, ensuring perfect slopes throughout the winter season. This commitment to maintaining optimal skiing conditions enhances the overall skiing experience, providing guests with priceless moments on the slopes. Tufandag offers a ski school for beginners with professional instructors, making it an ideal destination for individuals of all skill levels. Tufandag’s ski slopes are designed in various levels of difficulty, providing options for both novice and experienced skiers.

Beyond skiing and snowboarding, the complex offers a plethora of activities for guests. From mountain swings, viewpoint tours, quad biking, and snowmobile adventures to sledding and toboggan rides, there are numerous attractions to keep both children and adults entertained. Tufandag Mountain Resort is also distinguished as the only location in the country that offers night skiing, allowing enthusiasts to extend their skiing experience after sunset. The Après-Ski Bar adds an extra layer of excitement, providing a perfect setting for skiers to unwind and relish the thrill of the day.

In addition to winter offerings, Tufandag Mountain Resort has embraced the development of hiking and mountaineering activities during the summer season. Professional guides lead mountain tours, allowing guests to explore the stunning landscapes and enjoy the outdoor experience. For those seeking relaxation, camping activities are available, providing an opportunity to unwind in the heart of nature.

Q.: Can you provide an overview of the hotels of your group, including their locations, accommodations, and unique features?

A.: As the country’s first national five-star chain, we offer a diverse range of accommodations with unique features and world-class facilities. One standout property is the Qafqaz Riverside Hotel, considered the most luxurious and world-class hotel outside the capital. It is situated strategically, with one of the cable car lines starting from this hotel, providing guests with convenient access to explore the surrounding areas. The hotel boasts a variety of accommodations, including villas, rooms, and suites in different categories. In 2024, we will introduce the new branding of the Qafqaz Riverside Hotel. The newly renovated rooms, set to be unveiled in the upcoming summer season, promise a completely fresh and impressive experience for guests. The renovation goes beyond physical changes, encompassing new restaurant concepts, menus, services, and an overall guest experience aligned with global standards. Inspired by the perfect nature of Gabala, the design concept reflects a luxurious ambiance that stands the test of time. The Qafqaz Riverside Hotel not only offers accommodations but also provides extensive facilities, including MICE (meeting, incentive, conference, and exhibition) venues, SPA services, and a variety of dining options in numerous restaurants.

Another notable property within the group is Qafqaz Tufandağ Hotel, located at the foot of the mountains – the most picturesque part of Gabala. Tailored for those who appreciate beauty and nature, this boutique hotel stands out for its personalized services that make guests feel at home or feel like they have access to an exclusive place. The hotel holds an official five-star certificate from the Azerbaijan Tourism Board and Azerbaijan Hotels Association, ensuring a high standard of quality. With direct access to the ski slopes, Qafqaz Tufandağ Hotel caters to those seeking a unique and intimate mountain experience.

In summary, the Qafqaz Hotels & Resorts group presents a collection of properties that go beyond conventional accommodations, offering luxurious experiences, world-class amenities, and a commitment to excellence in hospitality. Each hotel in the group is distinct, reflecting the unique charm and natural beauty of its location while providing top-notch services and accommodations.

Q.: Gabaland Amusement Park, which is also part of your group, is the leading theme park in the Caucasus region. What kind of experiences and entertainment options can adult and children guests expect to find there?

A.: Gabaland Amusement Park encompasses 16 hectares, making it one of the largest entertainment destinations in the country and the entire Caucasus region. The park offers a diverse array of experiences and options for both adult and child guests. It has introduced its concept of a magic bracelet that provides unlimited access to over 20 rides and attractions throughout the day. Additionally, the inclusion of the Caspian Fish and Seafood restaurant adds a unique culinary experience to the park, making it a well-rounded destination for entertainment and gastronomy in Gabala.

Q.: Another unique attraction of your group is the Gabala Shooting Club. How does it contribute to the development of Azerbaijan’s national teams?

A.: The club offers a range of shooting options, including air pistol shooting, clay shooting, and trap and skeet shooting – all while adhering to International Shooting Sport Federation standards on all ranges. The commitment to excellence is made evident by the fact that the club has hosted World Cup competitions over the years, solidifying its reputation as a top-tier facility for both training and competitive events. The Gabala Shooting Club not only serves professionals but also extends its services to tourists. This inclusive approach aligns with the club’s commitment to nurturing talent, as can be seen from its membership in the Azerbaijan Shooting Federation. Moreover, the Gabala Shooting Club provides a comprehensive experience with additional amenities, including a hotel, restaurant, cafe, and a dedicated weapons store. The presence of knowledgeable staff capable of offering extensive information and legal assistance regarding both hunting and sporting weapons enhances the overall experience for club members and visitors alike.

Q: What watersports options does Gabala offer?

A: Our facility is thrilled to introduce a unique watersports center, Rafting Gabala, set against the picturesque backdrop of the Turyanchay State Reserve. This one-of-a-kind facility provides an exhilarating 13-kilometer rafting route that showcases the stunning natural beauty of Azerbaijan. We take pride in being pioneers in bringing this novel adventure to the country, ensuring that enthusiasts of active tourism can enjoy the thrill of rafting while appreciating the scenic wonders of Gabala.

Q.: What do you offer for guests who wish to experience the natural beauty and adventure opportunities in Gabala?

A: We are committed to enhancing our guests’ experiences in Gabala by offering special packages and promotions that align with market conditions. Continuously adapting to meet the preferences of our visitors, we ensure that these promotions cater to the diverse interests of those looking to immerse themselves in the natural beauty and adventure offerings of Gabala. To explore the latest deals and offerings, we encourage guests to visit qafqazhotels.com, where all our packages are detailed. Our professional team is dedicated to developing tourism innovations, ensuring that every visit to Gabala is not only memorable but also filled with exciting memories.

Q.: How has Gabala Hospitality Group contributed to the regional development in Gabala and Azerbaijan, particularly as the main employer in the area?

A.: As one of the industry leaders, we prioritize providing our employees with a great working experience that acknowledges their important role in the success of our endeavors. Our dedication to the community extends beyond employment opportunities. We actively collaborate with vocational schools, creating valuable connections between students and real businesses. This initiative not only benefits the students by providing them with practical insights but also contributes to the development of a skilled and knowledgeable workforce in the region. In line with our commitment to supporting local businesses, we engage in the purchase of certified products from small- and medium-sized enterprises in the area. This not only strengthens the local economy but also establishes a sustainable value chain that benefits both our operations and the broader community.

Our corporate social responsibility initiatives serve as a benchmark within the sector, setting an example for our colleagues and competitors. By participating in community development projects and embracing social responsibility, we strive to make a positive impact beyond our business operations. Additionally, as one of the largest taxpayer in the region, we contribute significantly to the local economy, further underlining our commitment to the overall development of Gabala and Azerbaijan. Through our multifaceted approach encompassing employment, education, local business support, and social responsibility, Gabala Hospitality Group stands as a driving force in regional development, making a lasting positive impact on both the community and the broader economic landscape.

Q.: What are some of the key initiatives taken by Gabala Hospitality Group to promote sustainable tourism and responsible environmental practices?

A.: Given our operations in nature-rich environments, our commitment to eco-friendly practices is a priority that evolves daily. We consistently strive to use natural resources effectively and economically, ensuring that our activities leave minimal impact on the environment. Operating in a sensitive forest area, we instill a nature-friendly attitude in all our guests, fostering an appreciation for the environment and encouraging responsible behavior. To actively contribute to environmental conservation, we implement waste reduction strategies, such as waste sparing and sorting. Additionally, we minimize plastic usage, with a focus on sustainable alternatives, and we prioritize the use of organic products, further aligning our operations with principles that support ecological balance. Within our organization, we foster a culture of equality and place great value on knowledge and skills. Female representation in decision-making and management positions is actively promoted, ensuring that diverse perspectives contribute to our sustainability efforts. In acknowledgment of the diverse needs of our community, we consider citizens with limited physical capabilities in all our locations, implementing measures to enhance accessibility and inclusivity. Our commitment to developing the industry is reflected in our support for vocational schools and active participation in the Azerbaijan Hotels Association. By remaining actively involved in their working groups, we contribute to shaping industry practices that prioritize sustainability. Furthermore, we extend special consideration to the families of martyrs and war veterans, recognizing the sacrifices made by those who have served the nation. Through these comprehensive initiatives, Gabala Hospitality Group strives to set a standard for responsible and sustainable tourism practices, ensuring a positive impact on both the environment and the communities we serve.

Q.: Are there any plans for expanding or diversifying the services and facilities offered by Gabala Hospitality Group in the near future?

A.: We have ambitious plans for expansion and diversification, with several exciting projects slated for 2024. One of the key highlights is the renovation of the Qafqaz Riverside Hotel, a project that fills us with excitement and anticipation.  However, our commitment to innovation and growth extends beyond just this renovation project. We have a range of new initiatives aimed at strengthening the image of Gabala as a premier tourism destination, with each project designed to offer novel and exciting experiences for tourists, contributing to the overall appeal of the region.

Q.: How have you collaborated with local communities to enhance the overall tourism experience in Gabala?

A.: Our commitment to fostering strong ties with local stakeholders is reflected in several key aspects. By engaging with local businesses, we enrich the variety of offerings available to our guests and create a network of interconnected businesses that collectively enhance the tourism landscape in Gabala. Equally important is our collaboration with local authorities. By maintaining open and constructive communication, we work hand in hand with the authorities to address community needs and align our initiatives with local development plans. As for sports development, our group actively supports shooting sports and skiing, fostering these activities not just to contribute to the local sports scene but also to attract sports enthusiasts to Gabala. We always strive to participate in initiatives aimed at the growth and improvement of tourism in the region. This may involve collaborating with tourism industry associations, participating in relevant events, and contributing to the development of industry standards and best practices. Our close relationships with tourism information centers further underscore our commitment to enhancing the overall experience for visitors. By actively engaging with these centers, we ensure that visitors have access to accurate and timely information about Gabala and its offerings, facilitating a seamless and enjoyable experience for every guest.

Q.: How does Gabala Hospitality Group engage with the Azerbaijani government and tourism authorities to further develop the tourism sector?

A.: First and foremost, we synchronize all our activities with relevant government programs and the national tourism strategy. This alignment ensures that our endeavors are harmonious with the broader goals and vision set by the Azerbaijani government for the development of the tourism sector. A significant aspect of our collaboration involves contributing to and cooperating with the Azerbaijan Tourism Board to formulate regional tourism strategy. We contribute valuable insights and expertise, ensuring that the regional perspective is well-represented and aligned with national objectives. Roadshows and tradeshows in which the country is represented are further avenues for us to engage with the government and tourism authorities. These events provide us with a platform to showcase Gabala and the diverse range of services we offer. Finally, we host large events that not only draw attention to Gabala but also serve as opportunities for networking and collaboration.

Q.: As the head of Gabala Hospitality Group, what vision do you have for the future of tourism in Gabala, and how do you plan to achieve it?

A.: My vision is anchored in harnessing the rich potential of this region to make the Group one of the most credible brands in the industry. Achieving this vision involves a multi-faceted approach aimed at continuous improvement, innovation, and strategic partnerships. Most importantly, I believe in the intrinsic tourism potential of Gabala. With its natural beauty, diverse attractions, and unique offerings, Gabala has the foundations to become a standout destination in the tourism landscape. To realize this potential, we are committed to constantly improving our products and services. Our teams work tirelessly to create new and captivating experiences that not only attract visitors but also leave lasting impressions. Maintaining intensive communication while entering both domestic and foreign markets is a crucial aspect of our strategy. By actively promoting Gabala on both fronts, we aim to broaden our reach and appeal to a diverse audience. Collaboration is key, and we will continue to work closely with the State Tourism Agency of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijan Tourism Board in the development of the regional tourism strategy. Moreover, we are dedicated to being a credible benchmark for gastronomy and quality service in Azerbaijan. By setting high standards in these areas, we not only enhance the overall guest experience within our facilities but also contribute to elevating the reputation of Gabala as a whole.

Q.: Finally, can you share any notable guest experiences or testimonials that highlight the quality of services provided by Gabala Hospitality Group?

A.: We have been delighted to witness a consistent surge in positive feedback and ratings from our guests across various platforms. Guests frequently express their satisfaction through glowing reviews, praising the welcoming atmosphere, attentive staff, and the diverse offerings available at our facilities. In essence, the positive guest experiences and testimonials are testaments to the success of Gabala Hospitality Group in delivering exceptional service and creating memorable moments for our valued guests.