A new tourism law, an oil tanker museum, a mountain safari and sustainable partnerships show that Azerbaijan is progressing towards tourism for tomorrow
Green shoots of recovery
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have moved up into Azerbaijan’s top 10 feeder markets list for 2021, Florian Sengstschmid, the CEO of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB), told TTN in an interview during Travel & Connectivity Week at Expo 2020 Dubai. Also, the Chief Advisor of the State Tourism Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Sengstschmid told us that the country’s tourism department was looking at reaching pre-pandemic 2019 figures as early as next year in 2023.
“There is a steady increase in tourism numbers, and this gives good reason for optimism,” he said. “Azerbaijan welcomed 790,000 visitors in 2021, which is 1 per cent lesser than in 2020, but that’s just because business was booming in January, February and March of 2020, and then we closed borders at the end of March 2020,” he said. “Especially when we look at the Gulf countries, in December 2021 alone, we had 13,638 visitors compared to 8,000 in December 2020.
“The total number of arrivals from GCC last year was 32,579, which is the same as 2020, but in 2020 we had an excellent first quarter. We see a marked increase in traffic from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and these are now among the top 10 countries from where Azerbaijan received travellers in 2021.”
While there are plans of a Ritz-Carlton to open in Baku this year along with an Indigo (an IHG brand) hotel also later this year, but perhaps some of the more interesting updates from the destination are the opening of a new tourism centre in the heart of Baku, a one-stop-shop for resolving tourist complaints, feedback, and doubts. “The new tourist information centre in Baku will bring together 12 government touchpoints in one location to make it easier for tourists to resolve any complaints they may have, apart from getting useful information about their visas, file police reports or find out more about buying and exporting carpets, for instance.”
The Shamakhi Safari Park, located in the beautiful and ancient wine country, is now open and combined with the nearby Shamakhi Astrophysical Observatory, make a good outing for tourists. The park covers over 1,000 hectares in the high-mountain area of Pirgulu and is home to more than 1,000 wild animals brought over from different countries. “The safari is actually a great experience, especially for families with kids - it is conducted on special vehicles. You can spot different types of red deer, Altai wapiti, mouflon, alpaca, bison and yak. Not far from there, alpaca farms with restaurants and cafes welcome kids for a memorable petting farm experience in the Caucasus Mountains.”
The Surakhani, the world's first oil tanker was put into operation in Baku in 1879. Many years later, the world's first oil tanker museum is anchored by the Baku Boulevard on the shores of the Caspian Sea. “The Surakhani Oil Tanker Museum in Baku is one of the oldest oil tankers from the beginning of the 20th century, which has been restored carefully over a period of years. It is now an interactive 3D museum docked on the Baku Boulevard. It has a museum, a cafeteria and restaurant, so you can eat on the tanker and walk all aboard the tanker. It's now a tourist attraction and it gives you insight into how tankers work, and it is very relevant to Azerbaijan’s modern history.”
Baku also has a brand-new zoo, completely refurbished from the Soviet era, and Baku Zoo is counted among the top modern zoos in Europe.
With so many new and updated sights on offer it makes sense to invest in a BakuCard that comes in different denominations of 24 hours, 72 hours and one week, and includes free public transport, entry tickets for selected city museums and attractions, plus discounts and special offers at shops, cafes, restaurants and much more.
Azerbaijan’s Slow Food Travel programme, a new model for tourism, made up of meetings and exchanges with farmers, cheesemakers, herders, butchers, bakers and winegrowers who, along with the chefs who cook their products, has expanded to the southern part of the country, with the north-western region of Azerbaijan now ready to receive Slow Food travellers.
At the end of last year, the Azerbaijani parliament passed the new tourism law and it is expected to come into effect in the first quarter of this year. This new law is the result of years of pushing the framework for developing tourism and aims to bring about a mandatory hotel rating and certification programme in Azerbaijan, according to the European hotel systems. With the new law, there will be mandatory certification for tourist guides, better services such as mandatory third-party insurance, increased and assured consumer protection. It means all the entities working in tourism must be registered in an online registry. “We will also change guest registration online – it will be state-of-the-art. So, the framework which we were working on for the past three years has been approved and this is really an important step for us.”
Azerbaijan Tourism Board has also signed a project with United Nations Development Programme focusing on regional development. “Through this project, we will be able to really support entrepreneurs, provide technical assistance, and upgrade the light touristic infrastructure. This programme ensures that we have quick action on the regional level to support tourism activities.”
In the larger framework of developing the tourism product all over the country, Azerbaijan Tourism Board has also confirmed the upgrading of 50 rural guest houses in eight regions of the country this year. In time, these small and medium enterprises will be scaled up to accommodate international travellers, as an authentic alternative to the traditional hotel model.
Sustainability has also been at the forefront, with the tourism board partnering with UNWTO to curb plastic usage. “We're working with industry associations from guides to travel agencies and hotels to really reduce plastic in all tourism operations. This is important for us because we're building on a lot of these sustainable and responsible tourism experiences,” says the CEO.
* For more Expo 2020 Dubai reports, head to pages 4 to 8