The inaugural European Games has done much to shine the spotlight on The Land of Fire, as the country gears up to receive five million annual tourists by 2020, and make tourism an integral part of its economy.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism says Baku 2015 provided the biggest boost to the country’s collective and concentrated effort, and spokesperson Vugar Shikhamedov said just after the games that the opening ceremony was broadcast in 93 countries and watched by more than one billion people. He also noted that over the past year, 33 million people had gathered information about Azerbaijan through Google and 70 per cent of the views had been generated in the month before the games.
"These statistics speak for themselves," said Shikhamedov. "On the other hand, athletes, journalists, and other foreign visitors are also potential tourists. They are impressed with Azerbaijan — our hospitality, and the cordiality of our people. I believe we will see the successful outcome of all this at the end of the year when the winter tourist season begins, or in the next summer."
Easier visa process
Visitors from most parts of the world require a visa to enter Azerbaijan, and another ministry is now making it a priority to make the process easier and faster. A few weeks ago, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hikmet Hajiyev said measures are in place to improve the e-visa system and to reduce the time of visa application reviews. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has opened a hotline and emergency email for tourists in the country.
President Ilham Aliyev issued the clarion call to boost all aspects of tourism at a July cabinet meeting, when he emphasised the need for cheaper hotels, better prices, and higher standards. "A number of world-famous hotel brands are operating in the country, particularly in Baku," he said. "They have their own price policy — we can’t interfere in this. But prices are also high in hotels that offer poor service, and prices are too high in regional hotels. The number of five-star hotels in Azerbaijan grows. However, there also should be two-star, three-star hotels."
In response, several government departments are working in tandem to improve service standards, reduce air fares, regulate hotel prices, introduce two- and three-star hotels and cater to budget travellers, and some results have already begun to show.
According to Trend News Agency, a price decrease in most private hotels in Azerbaijan is imminent. Nahid Bagirov, President of Azerbaijan Travel Association, said in July the organisation is working actively with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to achieve this goal.
"As a result, prices in most of the hotels have been revised and reduced by a certain amount — at least by 20 to 30 per cent."
Global popularity
Experts say the oil-rich country is treating tourism as a countermeasure to falling oil prices, but this push is particularly commendable in view of the fact that Azerbaijan is not short on tourism infrastructure. According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Azerbaijan is already capable of accommodating more than 35,000 tourists in its 530 hotels, of which 23 are five-star and 41 are four-star properties.
Of its nine airports, five are international and a return ticket from Dubai to Baku on flydubai costs as little as Dh1,000. The many luxury hotel chains in the country include Hilton, Four Seasons, Fairmont, JW Marriott, Hyatt and Kempinski and the UAE’s Jumeirah Group runs the Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel, with its spectacular setting on the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan has gained global popularity for its spa, skiing and health-care tourism. Dotting the countryside are a plethora of mineral springs, mud baths and oil-treatment centres that have attracted health-conscious visitors for centuries, and these are now being refurbished in readiness for more affluent and discerning travellers.
Another indigenous tourism strategy involves two prominent names. The Nobels played a major role in developing Azerbaijan’s oil industry in the late 1800s (and helped to make it the world’s biggest producer in the early 1900s) and in their honour, the family’s Villa Petrolea mansion in Baku has been restored, and now features a Nobel Museum. Meanwhile, the legacy of Marco Polo is kept alive through a network of Silk Road-themed attractions including roadside inns.
Azerbaijan is set to receive an extraordinary number of visitors when it hosts its first Formula 1 race next year, alongside the World Chess Olympiad, the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games and four Euro 2020 matches. In April, Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev said, "Azerbaijan has become the centre of international events, and that imposes great responsibility upon us for high-quality development of the sector."