Amid falling oil prices, Azerbaijan strives to double the number of foreign tourists visiting the country
Azerbaijan recently announced the beginning of a new phase in its development of tourism. At the first summit on national tourism on 18 October, the head of the State Tourism Agency, Fuad Nagiyev, said that one of the priorities was to spark the interest of foreigners in Azerbaijan as a tourist destination, and that this was only part of the “important work” being done.
Tourism has indeed been thriving - Bloomberg recently included Azerbaijan in its top ten of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in 2018.
According to official statistics, 1.5 million tourists visited Azerbaijan in the first six months of 2018 – 10% more than last year. Until 2023, the government wants to double the number of visitors to the country.
An increasing number of tourists come from Russia (31.6 percent), followed by visitors from Georgia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Ukraine.
“We have traveled in the South Caucasus but we have never been to Azerbaijan, which is why we decided to visit”, said a tourist from Rostov, who visited Baku for the first time, “We like everything here, particularly the city center, which is very impressive. And services are good, too.”
Another visitor told Meydan TV that Russian tourists are increasingly interested in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus because obtaining visas for Europe and the US has become more difficult for them.
At an Azerbaijani-Russian interregional forum in Baku in September, Fuad Nagiyev from the State Tourism Agency confirmed that the number of Russian tourists has been increasing: "More than 600,000 Russian citizens visited Azerbaijan during the first two months of of 2018, which is 20 percent more than last year during the same period.”
Citizens of nine post-Soviet countries including Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia enjoy visa-free entry into Azerbaijan. They can stay for two weeks without having to register.
During the first six months of 2018, about 734,000 tourists from post-Soviet countries took advantage of this opportunity.
No language barriers
One of the factors attracting tourists from the former Soviet Union is that Russian is widely spoken in Azerbaijan, not only in Baku but also in the regions, where Russian can be heard in any café, restaurant, shop or even on public transport.
For tourists from Turkey and Iran, there is no language barrier either – almost all Azeris understand Turkish, and visitors from Iran are mostly ethnic Azeris.
Apart from Baku, one of the most popular destinations is the ancient town of Shaki, which is located on the southern part of the Greater Caucasus mountain range.
Miravari Rasulova, a local, says that tourists often visit the Palace of Shaki Khans, which dates back to the 18th century, the caravanserai, and the local market.
In one of the shops, craftsman Agil Karimov makes so-called papakhas, wool hats that are worn by men throughout the Cacucasus. They are worn by dancers as well as shepherds, and depending on the quality of the wool prices vary from ₼25 ($15) to ₼300-350 ($175). He says that many of his customers are foreign tourists.
Vafa Mustafayeva, who works at the local tourist information, says the Azerbaijani government holds exhibitions related to tourism around the world in order to attract a greater number of tourists.
"I took part in such an exhibition in France in 2015. I can say that more tourists from France visited Azerbaijan after that," she told Meydan TV.
Recipe for success
According to economist Togrul Mashalli, the Azerbaijani tourist sector would benefit from a revision of the country’s visa policy, following the example of neighboring Georgia, where visa-free travel is granted to citizens of many countries.
In the beginning of 2018, Azerbaijan simplified the visa procedures for citizens of eleven countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, Japan, and China.
"Immediately after the government simplified the visa regime for citizens of Arab countries, the number of tourists from the UAE increased sevenfold. This year, more than 40,000 Arabs have visited Azerbaijan - that’s 20 percent of all tourists who visited the country. A similar system should be applied to citizens of other countries as well”, Togrull Mashalli said.
“An electronic visa processing system was established, but it’s still a visa”, Mashalli continues, “Right now, we have visa requirements even for neighboring countries like Iran and Turkey.”