Author: Nurlana GULIYEVA
Only a year passed since the date of the signing of the trilateral statement on Garabagh, which put an end to the 30-year occupation of Azerbaijani lands. Although the restoration of the liberated territories is underway at an almost unprecedented speed, it is unrealistic to forecast quick and complete revival of destroyed and plundered cities and villages. There is practically no infrastructure, no social conditions, while some locations have been completely wiped off. Nevertheless, thousands of people request the authorities to organise trips to these areas. It is not only about their desire to see the native lands as soon as possible, but there is also a genuine interest of foreign nationals in Garabagh. Therefore and given the beautiful scenery of the area, balneological resources, the survived monuments of cultural and historical heritage, there is no doubt that tourism will become one of the significant income sources of Garabagh and East Zangezur economic regions in the coming years.
The first group of foreign tourists (not officials or media representatives) visited Garabagh in September. On September 27, a commercial test flight landed at the Fuzuli International Airport, with more than 30 world famous international travellers from the US, Great Britain, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Russia. For the first time, heads of four leading international travel networks - ETIC (Extremal Travellers International Congress), MTP (Most Traveller People), TCC (Travellers' Century Club), NomadMania Club – gathered in Garabagh.
It is known that during the Soviet era, Garabagh was one of the most popular destinations for various types of tourism, including spa treatment. In 1987, the region was visited by 250,000 tourists, of which 50,000 were expatriates.
According to the head of Tourism Policy and Strategy Department of the State Agency for Tourism, Mammad Muradov, most of the region's tourism infrastructure was destroyed during the occupation, with financial losses amounting to billions of dollars. “Back in 1988, the total capacity of 16 hotels operating in the region was 891 beds. But during the First Garabagh War, a significant portion of this infrastructure was destroyed or significantly damaged," Muradov said.
For example, the video footage taken during the trip of President Ilham Aliyev and First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva to the Kalbajar and Lachin districts shows the ruins of the once famous sanatorium in Istisu built next to a unique source of healing water. It is one of the first medical and health resorts in the Caucasus built in 1928. In 1970, the resort received an All-Union status.
This is a unique water resource, which has no analogues in the world thanks to the chemical composition of water. Before the occupation, bottling plants operating here were quite successful also because their products were in great demand. Then the barbarous invaders used the resource for their own benefit, having released the products under their own brand and exported them to at fairly high prices...
The Lachin district is bordering with Kalbajar and is also rich in thermal waters. People enjoy visiting them not only for treatment, but also to admire the the scenic nature, thousands of historical architectural monuments, including burial mounds, fortresses, temples, etc., to taste the colourful and high-calorie dishes of the local cuisine.
A resort also operated in the heart of Azerbaijan, the city of Shusha. There has never been a shortage of tourists during the holiday season. Moreover, long before the establishment of Soviet power and the construction of modern resort complexes in Shusha, wealthy people from other regions of Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, etc. visited this beautiful city with healing springs of mineral water – Turshsu and Shirlan. There is plenty of historical evidence. All these resorts and spas brought in impressive income, which eventually influenced the well-being of local residents, who happily received crowds of guests from all over the world.
Priority No.1: Infrastructure
Will it be possible to restore the former tourist glory of the region? Yes, of course! All destroyed tourist facilities, including those in Gubadli, Jabrayil, Zangilan, Aghdam and other cities and villages will be restored, as repeatedly confirmed by the country's leadership.
The recently developed plans for Garabagh and East Zangezur provide for an extensive program for the development of recreational facilities in the area, which will make it possible to ensure the self-sufficiency of the region even through tourism alone.
According to Mammad Muradov, the main goal is to turn the region into a safe zone for tourism by 2030. It is clear that in order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to work in several directions. A strategic approach to the development of the region to increase its touristic attractiveness should be developed. Also, the region needs high-quality and competitive ground and air transport services. Thus, one international airport has already been commissioned in Fuzuli. Another transport facility is the Victory Road, which can get you from Baku to Shusha in less than two hours. One of the goals of constructing two additional airports – in Lachin and Zangilan – is also related to the development of tourism to ensure maximum comfort for travellers.
Construction and restoration of railways and highways is also underway in Garabagh and the adjacent districts. In particular, a completely new 51-kilometre Istisu-Minkend road is being constructed as a second communication line between Lachin and Kalbajar. It will make it easier to get to Istisu from the Lachin International Airport. “This road is of great importance in terms of ensuring the comfort of citizens, as well as the restoration of the Istisu resort, in an attempt to upgrade it to modern standards,” President Ilham Aliyev said during one of his visits to the region.
Relevant authorities are also engaged in the development of master plans for cities and villages of the region. State Agency for Tourism cooperates actively with the State Committee for Urban Planning and Architecture in this particular matter. “As part of our cooperation, we are already developing the settlements of Shusha, Aghoghlan, Sugovushan, and Dashalty, as well as a master plan for the entire region. Our objective is to reflect the approach to sustainable tourism when developing the city plans. As soon as these plans are announced, it will be easier to attract investors,” Mr. Muradov said.
Destinations and products
After the basic infrastructure is ready, it is necessary to decide which tourism destinations and products should be developed intensively when forming a recreational strategy for the development of the region, which is already being developed and assumes the introduction of almost all popular types of tourism.
According to experts, after the war, new perspective opportunities are available for the traditional tourism potential of the region. There are ample opportunities for the development of ecological, balneological, cultural, historical, and ski tourism, including hiking, camping, mountain biking, rafting, and parachuting, sanatoriums near thermal springs, hot baths, as well as various ski services during the winter season.
Since Shusha has been declared the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, after the completion of restoration works in the city, the famous Cıdır Düzü will undoubtedly become a venue for major cultural events, festivals, and competitions. This is a priori a powerful incentive to attract tourists.
In addition to tourist centres in Garabagh and East Zangezur, there is a great potential for organising tourist routes. For example, one of the cradles of civilisation – the Azikh Cave – is located in the Khojavend district, not far from the city of Fuzuli. Unfortunately, many exhibits stored in the cave were plundered by invaders during the years of occupation, which caused irreparable damage to the historical and archaeological heritage of Azerbaijan. Interesting museums have been created in many parts of Azerbaijan thanks to such historical artefacts, rather using an interactive demonstration of exhibits and historical events. Undoubtedly, the Azykh cave will be presented to the fans of ancient history in the best possible way, while all safety measures will be carefully observed to protect the ancient monument from possible damage.
The famous Khudaferin bridge on the Araz river, Albanian temples, burial mounds, mausoleums, and tombstones are the historical artefacts that attract tourists to this area. It is necessary to launch active PR activities to attract the largest number of tourists to these artefacts, with detailed reporting of truth about their historical belonging.
Development of business tourism (MICE tourism) in the liberated territories may become quite relevant in the near future. This includes attending conferences, congresses, business forums, etc. Therefore, experts point out that during the construction of hotels in the region, it is necessary to take into account the requirements of the business community, that is, provide appropriate conference rooms for business meetings.
Finally, another tourism product in the region will be the so-called black tourism, which is a new type of tourism developing in many countries. It is associated with tragic events in the history of the state, such as wars, natural disasters, etc. Usually, open-air museums are created in such places, where the artefacts associated with tragedies are demonstrated to tourists. President Ilham Aliyev instructed to determine locations in Garabagh that would explicitly demonstrate the consequences of the Armenian occupation. "It is planned to organise tourist routes through certain locations so that visitors can see the scale of destruction, horrors that took place on our lands over the past thirty years," Kenan Guluzade, Advisor to the Chairman of the Azerbaijan State Agency for Tourism (ADTA) said.
There are many plans, but they all need funding. Although the state bears most of the costs for restoring the basic infrastructure and other facilities in the liberated territories, it is unrealistic to complete the entire list of works through state funding only. Private investment is necessary and it needs to be attracted, motivated, and encouraged.
ADTA experts promise that a favourable regulatory framework will be created for incentive mechanisms to attract private investment. One of the main objectives of the proposed investment promotion mechanisms for the region has been identified as government policies aimed at maximising the benefits to the tourism sector. At the same time, it is planned to create tourist and recreational zones in the liberated territories as a state mechanism to encourage investors. Tourism and recreation areas will offer investors a more favourable investment regime. The main task is that the state creates the basic engineering and communication infrastructure in tourist and recreational zones.
“We believe that this mechanism used in many countries of the world will be suitable for the construction of tourism infrastructure in the short term, if it is applied in Garabagh. I would like to note that our goal is at least to return the pre-war tourist glory of Garabagh,” M. Muradov noted.
As we noted above, there is a huge interest in travelling to Garabagh, even though the territory has not been completely cleared of mines. Azerbaijanis have been waiting for this opportunity for too long and now they are eager to at least breathe in the aroma of native lands, however contaminated they are. Undoubtedly, this region will attract tourists, as in the old glorious days. The main thing for investors is not to miss the chance to get involved in ambitious restoration projects in a timely manner.