Author: Namig MAYILOV, Baku - Tashkent - Samarkand - Baku
Warm welcome, rich culture, ancient architectural artefacts... Only the first impressions when you are introduced to Uzbekistan. The more you know the country, the more words you need to describe your impressions. Once there, you plunge into a fairy tale, which even the beautiful Scheherazade shies of finishing in 1001 nights.
Silk Visa for the Silk Road
Tourism industry is of strategic importance in Uzbekistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has set ambitious tasks for the government: by 2020, the number of tourists visiting Uzbekistan is supposed to exceed 5 million people annually. Initial results of this work are rather obvious. As of September 2018, 3.9 million tourists visited the country, which is more than twice of the tourist inflow registered last year.
The recently introduced e-visa system works effectively. Currently, e-visas are available to the residents of 51 countries. However, the Uzbek government is determined to extend the coverage to all countries by the end of 2018. Fortunately, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, for the Uzbeks can avail of the experience of the friendly states, particularly Azerbaijan, which has implemented the ASAN Visa system. “Azerbaijan has done a huge work to develop tourism. This is a good opportunity for us to exchange experiences,” Aziz Abdukhakimov, Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, said at the opening of the 24th international tourism fair Tourism on the Silk Road.
Mr. Abdukhakimov believes that Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan can develop not only tourism between the two countries, but also offer joint projects for tourists to visit Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other countries along the Silk Road. One of them is the project Modern Silk Road Tour currently negotiated between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. For this purpose, it is planned to develop an Asian prototype of the Schengen visa, Silk Visa. Kyrgyzstan is also interested in joining the Silk Visa zone. Tashkent hopes that Azerbaijan will also join this system as an integral part of the Great Silk Road.
Tourist region and investors paradise
Meanwhile, the government of Uzbekistan tackles the development of the tourism infrastructure seriously. It believes that the rich history, culture, beautiful nature, tasty and colourful cuisine and warm hospitality are not enough to accomplish the task. It is also necessary to offer quality service at affordable prices in order to attract the modern tourists long spoiled by the giants of the industry.
Prices and the service level in Uzbekistan are quite affordable. However, the scale of services is inadequate in terms of the existing potential. Thus, the government is planning to adopt the Concept of Tourism Development until 2025, which will include road maps covering all areas. “So far, tourism has existed on its own, but now the state has undertaken a mission to develop it. Large facilities have been established in all regions to accomplish the tasks set by the government,” Abdulaziz Akkulov, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Tourism Development of Uzbekistan, said.
One of the primary tasks is to make the sector attractive for both the investors and ordinary citizens of the country. Thus, the government of Uzbekistan provides 22 types of benefits and preferences for investors such as a five-year tax exemption period for the construction of hotels and other tourist facilities. Licensing of hotels has also been cancelled. They are only subject to mandatory certification procedure to ensure compliance with the quality and safety standards, which has been simplified significantly. The procedure of opening hostels is facilitated to boost the number of accommodation facilities, which is one of serious problems of the industry in Uzbekistan. As of today, there are only 20 thousand rooms for 40 thousand guests of the country.
Tour operators are eligible to certain preferences. Previously, they would have waited for three months to get licensed, as opposed to 10 days today.
According to Abdulaziz Akkulov, one of the major challenges is the development of the tourism infrastructure. “Every day, we collect tourist reviews, and summarise and analyse them subsequently. Based on these reviews, we are planning, so to speak, to revolutionise the toilet infrastructure following the example of China,” Mr. Akkulov said.
To solve the problems in transport infrastructure, the government has exempted the cars of tourist class, mini- and regular buses, from import duties.
The government of Uzbekistan has great expectations for local tourism. To boost this sector of the industry, the Uzbek nationals travelling around the country are exempt from income tax. The government has introduced consumer loans for local tourists, which are covered by income tax exemption. The result is obvious. Thus, the number of local tourists in Uzbekistan is expected to be 14 million people in 2018, as opposed to 10.6 million local tourists last year. Basically, these are pilgrims visiting local shrines. Thanks to the pilgrimage, it is possible to benefit from local tourism in all seasons. There are also plans to attract pilgrims from Saudi Arabia as part of the project called Umra Plus.
Since 2018, Uzbekistan has applied a 30-day visa-free regime for the nationals of seven countries to be attracted to pilgrim tourism: South Korea, Singapore, Turkey, Israel, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan. Pilgrims visit not only the Islamic shrines, but also the artefacts and sanctuaries of Buddhist, Christian and Judaic traditions.
In Samarkand, it is planned to build a completely new facility, Samarkand City, covering 12 hectares of the city's territory. A similar facility called Ancient Bukhara will appear in Bukhara on the territory of 10 hectares. They are sort of time machines supposed to take you to the empire of the great Tamerlane or to the Bukhara Emirate. Yet you can feel the spirit of those times in Uzbekistan already today.
Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Shahrisabz are teeming with rich historical artefacts. You can literally get lost here mesmerised by the beauty of oriental monuments. Should you suddenly find yourself way behind your group or lost something, do not worry. You can always get the assistance of smiling tourist police officers.
Directorate of the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs to ensure safe tourism has been in operation since last December. All officers speak foreign languages and are trained to provide first aid, if necessary. “Our officers work at all tourist sites to help the tourists to solve their problems. Occasionally, they lose their passports, telephones, backpacks or luggage. We help them find these items, as well as to better navigate around the city,” a tourist police officer said at the Tourism on the Silk Road fair.
According to the Gallup International report for 2018, Uzbekistan is the fifth safest country in the world. So, forget your worries and enjoy your journey.
Mastava, samsa and the Uzbek pilaf
Uzbekistan is a paradise for gourmets. The National Geographic Traveller Awards 2018, which rates the most popular tourist destinations around the world, chose the country as the best destination in the nomination Gastronomic Tourism. Uzbekistan is followed by Italy and Azerbaijan in this rating.
The Uzbek cuisine is very original. It symbolises the ancient cultural traditions of this Turkic nation. As soon as you mention the names of these fragrant dishes such as pilaf, mastava, samsa, lagman, you wish you could taste all of them at once. But do not rush to choose. Each dish has its own specific features. Some of them you can eat all year round, while some dishes are seasonal. Cooking and serving tem is traditionally accompanied by a set of ancient mystery rituals.
The iconic feature of the Uzbek cuisine is definitely pilaf, which has more than a hundred varieties: Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, Farghana, holiday, summer, winter. But before you enjoy the pilaf, you will surely be offered to taste the samsa pie and mastava soup seasoned with roasted lamb chops. Be careful though, as they both are known as strong appetizers. Mastava is such a nourishing soup that sometimes you'll barely have enough space for pilaf. Fortunately, Uzbeks will offer you green tea traditionally served in special drinking bowls before meals, which helps the organism to get ready for the tasty load awaiting it.
Mahalla, chaikhana and Oriental bazaar
Speaking of tea, most of our Azerbaijani readers are well aware of the famous song of the Uzbek band Yalla: “In the East, in the East, where the taste of tea is the best”. Believe it or not, but in Tashkent you will not find tea houses similar to the ones in Azerbaijan. As a rule, local teahouses are sort of small cafes, where the guests not only can quench a thirst, but also eat delicious pilaf.
Each Uzbek mahalla, or neighbourhood, has its own teahouse, where the locals gather to relax and socialise. Traditionally, Uzbek mahallas used to be gathering spots uniting the masters of a specific craft. Ergo, the people visiting teahouses have mostly shared common interests and could also discuss other household issues such as wedding preparations, problems of the neighbourhood and individual families.
The tradition of Hashar, when the residents of mahalla gather to jointly solve problems, has existed in Uzbekistan since ancient times. However, Uzbeks will be glad to help not only each other, but also their guests.
Bazaar has a special place in the life of the Uzbek people. Shopping in the bazaar is a separate ceremony. You can buy everything here: food, clothes, a myriad of household utensils and souvenirs. Foreign tourists should definitely visit the Oloy and Chorsu bazaars in Tashkent. Apart from colourful souvenirs, pottery and silk items, you can buy delicious and famous Uzbek dried fruits, as well as fragrant spices. In short, do not miss the bazaars!
Direct flights in winter and summer
If you have always wished but could not manage to visit Uzbekistan, do not be upset. Soon, traveling to this pearl of the East will be as easy as falling in love with it.
The government of Uzbekistan is seriously dealing with the issue of increasing the frequency of flights in all directions. “Together with the World Bank, we analyse the activities of Uzbek airlines. Based on the results of this analysis, we plan to completely revise the policy of air travels by launching flights to new destinations and increasing the frequency of flights. We also plan to develop a program called the Open Skies for Foreign Airlines,” Abdulaziz Akkulov said.
Based on global tourism trends, destinations taking up to six hours to and from Uzbekistan will be given priority. The government has designed and focused marketing policies and advertising campaigns particularly on these destinations. Special attention is paid to the CIS countries.
The only problem is the limited capabilities, or rather the lack of aircraft available to the national air carrier. As a natural monopoly, Uzbek Airlines are forced to maintain the entire aviation infrastructure of the country, which inevitably increases the cost of services. However, the authorities do not want to give this sector to the mercy of the giants of world aviation. “We are facing a very difficult task: on the one hand, we must support our national air carrier, on the other, to open the Uzbek sky to various airlines. We are looking for an optimal solution,” Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Tourism said.
As an incentive, the government plans to cover some costs of air travels, that is, to subsidise the Uzbek Airlines. A relevant decision on this issue should be taken before the end of 2018.
Meanwhile, since August 2018, Uzbekistan has become closer to Azerbaijani travellers. Along with the Uzbek Airlines, Azerbaijan Airlines also launched a direct flight to Tashkent. A typical flight from Baku to Tashkent will take only two and a half hours. Enjoy your journey!