Author: Alyona MOROZ
A large number of tourists on the streets of Baku, full hotels, queues in central cafes and restaurants show that Azerbaijan has finally made a serious progress in the development of inbound tourism over the past years. In fact, the government has promised long before that the tourism industry can and should become a backbone and profitable branch of the national economy. For over a year, this issue has been one of the main topics of speeches and comments of state authorities and independent experts traditionally visiting the Azerbaijan International Exhibition Tourism and Travel, AITF.
AITF is the largest specialised event in the tourism industry not only in Azerbaijan but also in the entire Caucasus. The 17th exhibition held this year gathered 277 companies and organisations from 20 countries and presented 13 national and regional expositions. 31% of the total number of participants were the first-time participants of the AITF-2018. At the same time, the participating companies presented over 90 tourist destinations and other types of tourist services.
Minister of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Garayev, stated that in 2017, Azerbaijan's tourism industry grew by 20% and by 12.5% in the first quarter of 2018. In particular, 627,835 citizens of foreign countries visited Azerbaijan in January-March 2018, which is 12.6% higher than the indicator of 2017.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, the total amount of bank transactions made by foreigners reached ₼190.9m in January-February of 2018, which is 20% higher than the indicator recorded in the same period of 2017. The non-cash settlements of Azerbaijani nationals abroad reached ₼179.5m. Thus, we can clearly see a surplus of over ₼11.4m. This means that multimillion funds received from tourism are seriously replenishing the national budget.
There is also a noticeable increase in such an important indicator as domestic tourism. “Today, Azerbaijani citizens can freely leave the country thanks to tourist packages offered by the hundreds of travel agencies around the world. However, the increasing number of our nationals prefer spending their holidays in Azerbaijan,” said A. Garayev at the opening ceremony of AITF-2018.
By the way, this factor is positive not just because it helps to replenish the state treasury. The development of domestic tourism helps creating even more new jobs in the whole HoReCa (Hotel, Restaurant, Cafe) industry, which includes not only hotels, inns, guest houses, hostels, etc., but also numerous catering facilities from small roadside cafes to more prestigious cafes and restaurants. The demand also increases the supply of services, that is the domestic production of goods and services required to meet the needs of tourist facilities.
The second point is the further improvement of tourist infrastructure. Fortunately, many, if not the vast majority of owners of tourist facilities, understand the importance of providing high level services. It is not just about clean tablecloths and bed linens, fresh and delicious food and polite, helpful personnel. Any tourist visiting Azerbaijan for vacation or recovery should see well-paved roads and green spaces, be able to use professional advertising and information, transportation, translation, sightseeing, entertainment and other services. At the same time, it is necessary to create new types of transport communication such as ferries, cruise liners, tourist helicopters, etc.
As to the owners of tourism facilities, it is known that today our state is doing everything to ensure compliance of tourism facilities with the highest international standards. Therefore, all the actors of tourism industry must comply with these high standards.
Stop the violations!
The third important aspect is that the development of domestic tourism promotes the inbound tourism. It helps the increasing number of foreigners to learn more about the conditions created in Azerbaijan, and they certainly want to take advantage of them.
One of the most important changes of recent years has been a noticeable simplification of the visa regime for foreign national. In particular, the simplification of the procedure for issuing electronic visas and the establishment of the ASAN Visa system. As President Ilham Aliyev mentioned in a rather harsh manner in his recent speech, there were big violations in this area before that.
"One of my foreign colleagues told me: you liquidated, but now my fellow countrymen are required to provide a photo. What a nonsense? Why do they ask for a photo?! Does a person traveling abroad take a photo with him? They were told to leave if they did not have photos, or to pay and pass the check. How can you tolerate this?! After we punished these officials, the issue was solved. After some time, I heard that some officials asked foreign guests to pay for a fast-track service at the airports. This is disgraceful! We have taken very strict measures. I want to repeat that if there are any violations in this or any other sphere, if we hear about any cases of bribery, we will take very strict measures against all the responsible persons involved. They will be punished, despite their former merits", warned the president.
Therefore, starting from May, a new system will be applied at airports to ensure that guests at all border-crossing points have the most comfortable conditions.
However, the problems of tourists are not always limited to crossing the border. Numerous facts of violations in hotels, arbitrary actions of some hotel managers, as well as illegal requirements and restrictions on lodgers have long been criticised not only by foreign guests but also by local citizens and the media. "Sometimes law enforcement officers unreasonably interfere in the operation of hotels allegedly ensuring compliance with certain norms. It is all about self-interest, and intention to rip off money to fill their own pockets. This should also be stopped," said Mr. Aliyev.
Apparently, the president is closely and constantly monitoring all the issues related to the tourism industry. This help a lot to quickly achieve the goal of turning Azerbaijan into a tourism hub of the whole region.
According to the Chairman of the Azerbaijan Tourism Association (AzTA), Nahid Baghirov, in 2018 the demand from foreign tourists is growing exponentially. The opening of new flights from the Arab world, as well as Europe and Asia contributes to this process.
Indeed, according to statistical data of the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, in January-February 2018 the main airport of Azerbaijan served more than 545 thousand passengers. This is 16% higher than in the first two months of 2017.
At the same time, the data of the Ministry of Tourism disproves the opinion of many citizens who believe that the majority of tourists in Azerbaijan are from the Arab world. Thus, in the first quarter of 2018, most foreigners visiting Azerbaijan were from Russia (171,800) followed by Georgia (138,900), Iran (99,200), Turkey (72,700), UAE (29,300), Ukraine (11,900), and Iraq (11,100). By the way, a noticeable growth was registered in the number of tourists from these countries.
Considering the trends of recent years, especially 2015-2017, the geography of inbound tourism in Azerbaijan will rapidly expand. According to N. Baghirov, all regions of the world are promising in this respect. So, only for a short period of time the association opened offices in Malaysia and India, although Azerbaijan and India do not have direct flights, and Indian tourists visit our republic in transit through Dubai. It is easy to imagine what will happen if the Baku-New Delhi flight opens - the number of tourists from India will reach thousands of people. Another important area is East Asia, in particular China.
According to the Strategic Roadmap for Tourism Development, it is expected that 900,000 tourists stay at hotels of Baku by 2020. For comparison: in 2015, this indicator reached 500,000. At the same time, the number of people who do not stay at hotels should increase from 800,000 to 1.5 million people, and the number of low-budget tourists - up to 265,000.
In theory, we expect to see significant changes in the tourism industry of Azerbaijan by 2025. Since tourism remains one of the priority sectors for both the state and private sectors, these changes will be not only quantitative, but also qualitative. And the citizens of Azerbaijan will get much more benefits from the development of tourism industry.