Thursday, December 8, 2022

Azerbaijan: on rebuilding a more diversified and sustainable tourism destination

Azerbaijan, a multicultural country known for its diverse flora and fauna, various UNESCO heritage sites, a unique slow food culture, scenic views of the Caucasian Mountains and so much more, have truly put the country in the spotlight among travelers in recent years. Its appeal to travelers is evident with the record-breaking number of international visitors they welcomed, pre-pandemic. Today, as tourism picks pace once again, Azerbaijan is looking to diversify its tourism offerings with their home-grown attractions to emerge as a stronger, more authentic, more sustainable destination.

ArabiaTravelNews.com caught up with Florian Sengstschmid, CEO of Azerbaijan Tourism Board, to find out what makes this destination so unique and what guests can look forward to.

What is the current status of inbound tourism into Azerbaijan?

We are happy to share that tourism in Azerbaijan is in an active recovery phase, with numbers of arrivals increasing day by day. Statistics indicate that 1,162,949 tourists from various countries visited Azerbaijan from January to September of this year, which shows 126 per cent growth compared to 2021.

Among the top countries for arrivals are our neighboring countries, along with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, India, Kazakhstan. Currently, Azerbaijan is open to more than 100 countries and offers a very easy e-visa process.

What appeals Azerbaijan to today’s traveler?

Azerbaijan is a perfect destination for activities that can be enjoyed together with family and children. If you are interested in an authentic shopping experience, then antique and souvenir shops in Icheri Sheher will fascinate you with the exquisite items, while the largest shopping mall in the region Deniz Mall will fulfill every shopaholic’s dream with a variety of brands, restaurants, coffee shops, cinema and entertainment centres. It is located on a Boulevard which has a perfect view to the Caspian Sea. The Mall also has an exceptional Kinderland entertainment and educational centre for children of 4-14 years. For the adults, there is a SkyPark with fun sporting activities. There are more of many other exciting activities on the Boulevard – carting, boat ride along the canals in Little Venice or aesthetically pleasing Carpet Museum with the collection of more than 6,000 carpets. For the evening adventure, you can take a ride on the Baku Eye with a mesmerizing view of Baku.

Some other great activities and fun family days can be spent in the oasis right in the city centre – at a newly renovated Baku Zoo. Visitors of the Zoo can learn about the nature of more than 125 animal species, 22 of which are listed in the Red Book. When travelling to the Shamakhi tourists can be pleasantly surprised to discover the alpaca farm. These animals are the sweetest and nobody can resist their friendly personality. The atmosphere created by the nature of these unique animals merges you into the therapeutic experience.

What new changes / experiences have been implemented since the pandemic?
Since the pandemic ‘era’, we have implemented a number of new tourist experiences across the country. For instance, there are 16 newly developed hiking trails across the northern and north-western routes of Azerbaijan across the country. The routes are unique and built in such a way that tourists can easily plan a post-hike trip to the closest cities, lakes, or various sightseeing places. Moreover, tourists get a chance to try local food whether they go for a hike, camping or stop by in the village or closest town.

That is a part of the Slow Food Travel in Azerbaijan, that promotes sustainable travel, economic regeneration and well-being of rural regions, and preservation of local cuisine as part of the country’s heritage. At the moment, Slow Food Travel is developed in the north-west of Azerbaijan and one can find local producers as well as the sightseeing on the special Slow Food Travel map. We are in the process of expanding Slow Food Travel to the South of Azerbaijan, with an amazing choice of products.

Azerbaijan is perfect for the gourmands, as every city has a variety of cafés and restaurants, as well as premium hotels with delicious cuisine. In Baku, you can find not only the best samples of Azerbaijani cuisine, but also international delicacies.

What were your key focus areas in rebuilding tourism back to Azerbaijan? Have you noticed any new inbound patterns emerge post-pandemic?

In March 2020, when international borders got closed, and we had a full lockdown, we decided to develop a new four-phase strategy to make sure we have action plans to move forward even in such critical situations. Here at ATB, we are endeavoring to find creative solutions that can benefit all stakeholders and offer travelers with safe and enjoyable adventures.

The first stage of the strategy was dedicated to provide support to the partners in local industry. Due to the pandemic, our main concerns and focus was on the development and maintenance of health safety measures across the key tourism stakeholders. Thus, we launched the SAHMAN programme (Sanitation and Hygiene Methods and Norms), to support local industry players across the supply chain in the improvement of hygiene and sanitation among accommodation, F&B and touristic transportation providers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, domestic tourism became a new addition to the ATB’s strategy. Therefore, when the lockdown was finally lifted and domestic travel was allowed, we needed a plan for the development of domestic tourism. And that is when we implemented the second phase of the strategy. We wanted to make sure that local travelers have access to all the offerings and special campaigns on one platform.

Besides, we wanted to find a solution to help our local partners in the pandemic recovery process. Accordingly, we launched a “Macəra Yaxındadır” (Adventure is Near) platform where one can find and book a trip to Azerbaijan. We believe such initiative was very important since after a long break from traveling, the demand for domestic travel dramatically increased. Providing safety and comfort, and ease access to necessary travel information on one platform was an essential part of our recovery plan from the pandemic.

With new touristic products and thrilling campaigns, we can see how domestic tourism becomes more popular among locals. Thus, we further expand the number of touristic products and experiences to fulfil the needs of local travelers. At the moment, we are working on the development of a new platform called “Mehman” which literally translates as “guest” from Azerbaijani. The idea is that everyone will be able to book all kinds of accommodation across Azerbaijan while comparing all the available options.

What appeals Azerbaijan to the Middle East traveler?

Demographics indicate that this year from January to September, 317.188 tourists travelled to Azerbaijan from the MENA region. This year Azerbaijan was a popular destination among travelers from Saudi Arabia (86.326), UAE (27.093), Kuwait (18.804) and Oman (16.478).

Azerbaijan attracts GCC tourists with its availability of family friendly activities including entertainment and educational centers for children at malls in Baku, newly renovated Baku Zoo and Alpaca farms in Shamakhi. Nonetheless, travelers are mesmerized with new and impressive developments and the amazing nature of Azerbaijan. Summer is a popular but we want to extend it to winter.

GCC travelers have been traveling to Azerbaijan to get away into the calming nature of Gabala, Ismayilli and Sheki, as well as traveling in winter for skiing in Shahdag and Tufandag. Shahdag Mountain Resort is located in the Gusar region and offers scenic views with high-class hotels, spas, restaurants, as well as different thrilling sports and leisure activities. Here everyone from the beginner to professional skier can relish over 17 kilometres of pistes. Non-skiers can also have fun choosing among a number of activities such as off-road tours, paragliding, cycling and cable car rides overlooking the majestic mountains.

While being at the resort, tourists can discover samples of traditional food of the region as well try dishes representing every part of Azerbaijan. One should definitely try essentials of Azerbaijani cuisine such as plov: which is made of rice mixed with herbs, dried fruits, meat or fish and other local ingredients, dolma: made of grapes leaves stuffed with various fillings of meat and rice, herbs or nuts; qutabs: a sort of flatbread stuffed with different fillings – such as meat, herbs, cheese or pumpkin – and cooked on an cast iron disk called a saj.

If tourists choose another amazing winter resort, Tufandag they will be exploring the peaceful region of Gabala. Tufandag has 15 kilometres of greatly groomed slopes for skiing and snowboarding, and all the beginners can attend the school to learn necessary techniques. Gabala is also famous for a large number of thermal mineral waters. What is great about Azerbaijan is that all the touristic locations are close to each other, allowing travelers to enjoy a variety of experiences at once. Therefore, we always talk about the versatility of the regions, to help visitors plan their trips in a more detailed and enjoyable way.

Azerbaijan also has great flight connections with GCC which makes this destination even more accessible and attractive to the travelers: Saudi Arabia (direct flights from Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam operated by Flynas, AZAL and flyadeal); UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah operated by AZAL, Flydubai, Air Arabia, WizzAir); Qatar (Doha operated by Qatar Airways); Kuwait (Operated by Kuwait Airways and Jazeera Airways); Bahrain (operated by Gulf Reps). As Middle Eastern travelers prefer to fly direct, Azerbaijan is an ideal travel destination for them, as the destination is close, has direct flights, and provides visa on arrival for residents and citizens of GCC.

What new markets are you targeting at present and why?

We are currently targeting the following markets: Overall DACH region with Germany, Switzerland and Austria, UK, Poland, Czech Republic, Turkiye, Georgia, UAE, KSA, Qatar, Israel, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Russia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, India, Pakistan. When it comes to the choice of our target markets we usually pay attention to a number of details such as availability of air connection between our countries, the accessible visa requirements and easy procedure, as well as how suitable our products are to their travel behavior. We want to make sure that our two-sided collaboration is interesting and beneficial for both parties.

So far, we can see positive trends in work with all our target markets. We have an increase in the arrivals, more corporations with international journalists and other media representatives. Overall, we can say that with each year, Azerbaijan is becoming a more exciting and fascinating destination for travelers.

Has the increase in demand brought challenges? How are you tackling this in a sustainable fashion?

One of the greatest challenges we faced due to the pandemic was the loss of qualified workforce. To tackle this problem, we created a Tourism Training and Certification Centre. It was important for us to raise tourism awareness in the country as well as to contribute to the employment rate and increase the share of certified workforce in the tourism sector. “Training and Certification Centre” trains members, employees, state officials and other industry representatives with innovative teaching methods and help of tourism professionals.

Participants get a chance to attend courses online and offline, studying not only tourism related topics but also foreign languages. Every year, our trainees evaluate and develop the study plan in order to update the curriculum of available courses as well as increase the variety of the training. Within the framework of this project, we can see a dramatic increase in the service quality across different stakeholders.

How relevant is the MICE sector? What changes have you implemented to ensure the return of business travelers?

Azerbaijan is known for hosting a variety of business events and is well-equipped to provide all the necessities and comfort for such occasions. We established the Business Events Industry Alliance to have stronger collaborations with local stakeholders who support us in organization of business events. This alliance is created to bring together partners from all across the industry, including events venues, hotels, special venues for the gatherings, Professional Congress Organisers and Destination Management Companies. Within the alliance, all the industry stakeholders can come together to share and exchange their experiences. We believe that such a format of constant learning and communication among local partners can enhance the quality of the events planning and organization.

Both corporate and associate events play a big role in our strategy. The congresses and conferences are very important as within their framework, many experts come together to share and exchange knowledge, ideas and their progress in particular fields. Since Azerbaijan has a rich scientific history and many ongoing projects in oil and gas, petro chemistry physics and mathematics, those are the topics of the events. We mainly focus on. Thus, we created a database of potential events that we can host in Azerbaijan. We also build connections with representatives of science communities, international associations in order to implement our ideas considering the interests of all sides.

Working with different representatives prompt us to build an Ambassador Program, which allows us to connect with experts of their respective fields and associations they belong to. Nonetheless, they contribute to research and analysis associated with the impact and benefits of association events. We are proud to say that work with our partners granted Azerbaijan opportunities to host major events such as the International Astronautical Congress, the 99th International Session of the European Youth Parliament, and the Regional Congress of the European Association for Cranio Maxillo Facial Surgery in 2023 and University Scholars Leadership Symposium planned to be held in 2024. In order to find innovative solutions and necessary investment for the respective fields and industries, it is crucial to attract such large-scale international events to Azerbaijan.

What is your plan to boost tourism in 2023 and ahead?

We plan to further implement and update our seasonal marketing initiatives and platforms to provide important, accurate and inspiring information for the travelers. We want to make sure that visitors can have all the necessary information and tools to help them imagine and plan their own unique travel experience. Likewise, we want travelers to have a better idea of how many diverse experiences, rich culture and historical sightseeing await them in Azerbaijan. Our country is very multicultural, thus, through our campaigns we would like to introduce travelers to the cultural diversity in Azerbaijan.  

Adding to that, the success of our Experience Azerbaijan magazines inspires us to continue further publications as these editions combine the high-quality content covering detailed information about the country. These magazines can serve as a guide to Azerbaijan, telling you all the important details you need to know. Nonetheless, we want to further work leading B2B and B2C publications and expand our collaborations across our target markets.

How are you working with the travel trade to ensure strong global representation ?

In order to have a strong representation across the world, we implement different activities based on the particular destination and its preferences. All of our activities are directed to increase sales and awareness about Azerbaijan. For instance, we organize roadshows, seminars, exhibitions and presentations about Azerbaijan as a travel destination. Depending on the awareness of Azerbaijan in the particular market, we decide on which angles to focus on when implementing our marketing plan. For the new markets, it is interesting to learn more about Azerbaijan in general before dwelling on the details of the distinct tourism products.

On the other hand, some markets demand to be presented with the specific tourism products that might be exciting for their audience. When it comes to work with B2B companies, we organize strategic meetings with the heads or representatives of respective organizations. To sum up, ATB ensures to plan activities that can be suitable for different stakeholders to ensure we have a strong representation on the global market. 

I think Azerbaijan is a place that will leave everyone with warm memories and exceptional experiences.

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