Author: Khazar AKHUNDOV
According to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a full recovery of international tourism should be expected after 2022. By that time, the positive effect of universal vaccination and the lifting of lockdown restrictions will make it possible to resume passenger air traffic, while the dynamics of economic growth will gradually restore the tourism industry. According to UNWTO, at the beginning of 2021, 80% of countries still keep their borders closed, with the recreational sector of these countries reoriented to local tourists. Similar processes take place in Azerbaijan, where the government takes measures to support local tourism, including the certification of hotels and the first steps to resume flights. At the same time, authorities began the studies of the tourism potential of Garabagh.
Revival of the tourist sector will take more time
According to the UNWTO, due to the pandemic in 2020, the number of international travels decreased by a billion, incurring a $1.3 trillion loss for the global tourism sector and threatening the loss of about 100-120 million jobs in tourism and related industries.
Forecasts of international experts for 2021 are also pessimistic. However, there is a possibility of some reduction in industry losses. Thus, representatives of the tourism sector expect the restoration of primarily open-air and local tourism. At the same time, according to the UNWTO's optimistic scenario, it will take at least 2.5 years to fully restore the global tourism industry to the pre-crisis level of 2019. That is, it will happen around the middle of 2023.
“There is a lot of chaos in the tourism industry, as there are various lockdown restrictions in many countries. Nevertheless, I believe the vaccination process will significantly accelerate the growth of tourism. Compared to last year's results, the summer of 2021 should be much better. But this requires coordination between countries and the establishment of common rules, which is not easy,” Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization Zurab Pololikashvili said. He also added that the work of the UNWTO Crisis Committee is aimed at harmonizing certain international rules for travellers, including the development of an agreed protocol for overseas travel of tourists vaccinated against COVID-19. Thus, it will be possible this summer to observe positive indicators to have an optimistic mood for both travellers and companies engaged in the tourism sector. At the same time, according to Z. Pololikashvili, today all countries of the world need to maximally stimulate local tourism as a first step to revive the industry, taking into account the remaining restrictions on cross-border travel in 80% of the countries of the world.
Azerbaijan relies on local demand
Above forecasts and recommendations generally reflect the current situation in the tourism sector in Azerbaijan. The consequences of the lockdown introduced in March 2020, which caused the greatest damage to the tourism sector and the volume of passenger air traffic, continue to affect the related industries also in 2021. According to the State Statistics Committee, the number of foreign citizens visiting Azerbaijan in January-February 2021 reached 72,100, which is 5.9 times less than the corresponding indicator of last year. In particular, the number of arrivals from the Persian Gulf countries decreased by 5.6 times, from the CIS countries - by 5.2 times, from the European Union countries - by 4.3 times. Currently, trips to Azerbaijan are carried out mainly for non-tourist purposes, mainly by citizens of Russia, Turkey and Iran (these three countries account for 72.5% of all foreigners inbound Azerbaijan).
During the first two months of 2021, only 60,900 Azerbaijani citizens made foreign trips, which is 13.5 less than before the lockdown. “Although it is possible to fly abroad, even through special flights implemented specifically for this purpose, this cannot be regarded as tourism. However, we hope for the second half of the year,” the head of the Sector for Media and Public Relations of the State Agency for Tourism (DTA) Kenan Guluzade said.
Considering transport restrictions, the emergence of new strains of COVID-19 and the likelihood of another wave of pandemic, as well as the problems with vaccination in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the CIS countries, etc., it is extremely difficult to forecast the resumption of mass incoming tourism in Azerbaijan. However, there are certain prerequisites for positive growth dynamics in the outgoing tourism segment. According to the Operational Headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers, as of March 22, about 488,000 nationals of Azerbaijan were vaccinated. This process continues.
According to the Chairman of the Expert Council of the Association of Travel Agencies of Azerbaijan (ATAA) Göydeniz Gahramanov, there is already enough demand for foreign tours. Despite the limited options, Azerbaijani tourists can visit Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, UAE, Georgia and Belarus. In the first months of the year, the sales of travel agencies began to grow, reaching 20% of the level of the 1Q2019. According to the expert's forecasts, it is possible that by the end of the year the volume of sales of foreign travel vouchers reaches almost 50% of the pre-pandemic level. Moreover, the main flow of tourists will be to Turkish resorts, since European countries are going to open their borders to tourists not earlier than in autumn.
The positive aspects contributing to the development of outgoing tourism include the resumption of passenger traffic with a number of post-Soviet states and neighbouring countries. Thus, AZAL and the low-cost airline Buta Airways resumed regular flights to Georgia, Turkey, the UAE in February-March 2021. In the near future they will increase constant air traffic with cities of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and a number of other neighbouring countries. Recently, a new contract was signed with the Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air, as well as with Pakistan International Airlines on the organization of flights from Lahore to Baku. Organization of direct flights with these countries is expected in the near future, after the relief of lockdown measures.
As for the tourism potential in the country (hotels, boarding houses, recreation areas), their involvement in the industry turnover has not yet reached the expected indicators. In September 2020, it was predicted that thanks to the easing of lockdown restrictions, local tourism could partially offset the sharp decline in foreign visitors. However, the curfew introduced during the liberation war in Garabagh and the ensuing restrictions within the framework of the next lockdown made adjustments to expectations. Some revival in the segment of local tourism has been observed since January 25, when intercity communication was resumed in Azerbaijan: the number of holidaymakers in winter increased mainly on weekends, and the main flows were recorded in the districts of Shamakhi, Gabala, Guba and Gusar. The cost of living in regional hotels has remained stable compared to previous years, however, prices for daily rent in tourist areas have noticeably increased.
“Hotels in Azerbaijan did not close, working even during the tightened lockdown period. However, some events, including entertainment, were not held there,” Kanan Guluzade noted. According to him, positive trends in tourism in Azerbaijan are expected in 2H2021 in the summer. However, this will depend on the epidemiological situation in the country, and decisions will be made based on the realities. "In general, the processes are encouraging. The population is vaccinated against the coronavirus, and we are optimistic about the prospects for tourism," Guluzade said.
In the meantime, the State Aviation Administration and other relevant departments conduct the monitoring of hotels and recreation areas in the country before the summer season. Since August 2020, about 300 hotels and hotel-type facilities have been checked in Baku and other regions of the country for compliance with sanitary and hygienic standards, food safety, taking into account the applicable Rules for organizing hotel activities during the COVID-19 pandemic developed by the Cabinet of Ministers.
In March 2021, with the support of the Azerbaijan Tourism Bureau and the Hotel Association of Azerbaijan, authorities began the assessment of hotels that had applied for the national classification test to receive stars. 40 hotels applied for qualification, with 24 of them audited. Assessment is conducted on the basis of the criteria of the Hotel Stars Union of the European Association of Hotels. The stars are assigned to hotels for a period of three years, after which they must be re-tested. According to Florian Sengstschmidt, Chief Executive Officer of the Tourism Bureau, star classification is an important factor in the development of the hotel industry and creates conditions for better service for tourists. These measures are critical for the post-pandemic revival of the industry and for attracting foreign tourists in the face of growing regional competition.
Garabagh: pearl of tourism
In the longer term, the main efforts in the tourism sector will be aimed at developing the recreational potential of the liberated Garabagh region. Currently, the State Tourism Agency and a number of other departments are conducting research on the tourism potential of the liberated territories to develop a Strategy for the Development of Regional Tourism in Garabagh. According to the head of the State Aviation Administration Kenan Gasimov, in order to use the potential of these territories at the first stage, it is necessary to solve a number of issues such as the creation of transport and other infrastructure, security (demining of territories) and the return of the population.
At present, infrastructure projects are being actively implemented: in parallel with the work of sappers, highways are constructed to Shusha and along the border with Iran. It is also planned to lay a route along the mountain passes of Kalbajar and Lachin. A railway line to Aghdam is also being constructed. The construction of an international airport in Fuzuli has started already, which is extremely important for the future development of international tourism in Garabagh.
At the same time, experts already make statements about the specialization of individual districts, taking into account their landscape, as well as natural and climatic features.
According to K. Guluzade, at the first stage, the main focus will be on the organization of local tourism. It is planned to conduct introductory tours, and after the complete restoration of the infrastructure, it is planned to revive health tourism.
In particular, in Kalbajar, Lachin and Shusha, with their healing springs and mountain air, there are ideal opportunities for the development of health tourism. Famous healing springs are located in the settlements of Yukhary and Ashaghi Istisu, Baghirsag, Keshdak, Iligsu, Minkend, etc. of Kalbajar. Even before the occupation of Istisu settlement of Kalbajar, there were two large sanatoriums of all-Union significance (before the collapse of the USSR), accommodating 50,000 people annually for treatment and recreation.
In general, there are about 120 deposits of mineral waters of various gas and chemical composition and medicinal value in the liberated territories (about 39.6% of the total geological reserves of medicinal springs in Azerbaijan). This makes it possible to create a number of balneological resorts there focused on methods of treatment and recovery of the body based on water procedures, as well as recreational areas.
The enchanting nature of Gubadli and the natural landscapes of the mountain river Bazarchay flowing there are very promising for attracting tourists too. In turn, the pearl of Garabagh - the city of Shusha and its environs with rich nature, mountainous landscape and famous Chetir Waterfall are ideal for the formation of a sports, environmental and cultural tourism cluster. Some hotel chains are making plans to create hotel complexes and entertainment centres there by analogy with the existing international resorts of Shahdagh and Tufandagh.
In general, according to the chairman of ATAA G. Gahramanov, there are great opportunities in Garabagh for the development of mountain, winter, hunting, agricultural and green tourist destinations. In addition, with its ancient history, its unique flora and fauna, cuisine, historical, cultural and religious monuments, ancient fortresses, as well as other attractions, Garabagh will always be attractive for tourists and will eventually turn into the most attractive tourist region in the entire South Caucasus.