This year, there has been an increase in the number of tourists from Europe to Azerbaijan. Thus, in January-September the number of visitors from these countries increased by 24% and amounted to 110.3 thousand people.
Report has examined the views of foreign officials about the steps that should be taken to continue this growth in the coming years.
Head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Ambassador Kestutis Jankauskas has listed problems in this area:
“Indeed, while the overall number of European tourists to Azerbaijan is growing, the absolute number remains rather low compared to other destinations, including Azerbaijan’s neighbours.
The European market, ie 500 million people, is relatively close by – Baku is reachable from most main European cities within 5 hour flights. Transport infrastructure in Azerbaijan is very good including an award-winning airport (GYD). In main cities, comfortable accommodation is available with the possibility of online booking. In Baku and around it, as well as in Sheki, UNESCO heritage sites are located. So the potential for increasing tourist arrivals and income from the European market is important. However, there are a series of obstacles for that.
Let’s start with the visas for instance. The biggest increase (around 20%) of the number of European tourists happened after the introduction of ASAN visa system. Obviously the current visa regime, even if had been simplified, remains a burden and an obstacle. Among the CIS countries, only Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan require visas to EU nationals. Tourism is a very competitive business and just to improve is not good enough: you have to be more attractive that your competitors. If your competitors offer visa free entry, they have a comparative advantage. And this is just about visas.
We do work closely together with Azerbaijan State Tourism Agency discussing various ways to increase the number of tourists from Europe and to provide them with best conditions on the ground in Azerbaijan. We have been engaged in several cooperation projects as well directly on tourism as well as various ways to improve conditions for better presentation of regions and their development plans, support to SME, hospitality business etc.
Embassies of EU member countries present in Baku keep working directly facilitating contacts between travel agencies”, - ambassador said.
Visas apart, K. Jankauskas highlighted three more aspects:
Air transport: Since 2013 EU and Azerbaijan have been negotiating Aviation agreement. It is close to completion.
1) This agreement, if and when signed and implemented, would provide better connectivity between Azerbaijan and the places in the European Union: cheaper tickets, more destinations, more direct flights, better connections. This would be the major instrument to boost the numbers of European tourists, and also to provide much better travel conditions to the people of Azerbaijan. The number of European cities served by direct flights from Baku is very low, compared with neighbouring, competing countries. More flights, more choice, more competition, lower prices. 2) The cost of the ticket and the availability of direct flights is obviously one of the main criteria when choosing the travel destination.
3) The profile of the European tourist is more geared to small hotels, family restaurants, authentic food and a unique travel experience: A Finn will not come to Azerbaijan to live like in Finland, he would need to feel in an exotic travel experience. A plasma TV in his room is less important than a breakfast using local products for instance.
If you have excellent cutting edge infrastructure the benefits are limited, if the persons managing it do not have the required training. The lack of English speaking staff in hospitality management or the lack of proper education in hospitality services should also be addressed.
UK Ambassador to Azerbaijan James Sharp said that the best way to attract European tourists is through sporting events and ecotourism.
"Tourism is a really important and growing industry worldwide. We get about 40 million visitors coming to the UK every year, and the London airport network is the busiest in the world. So tourism is very important and can add huge value to your country as well.
You have a lot of advantages. Azerbaijan is at a cultural crossroads – you are in Europe, but with a flavour of the Middle East, a flavour of Asia. So it’s very interesting for people from different parts of the world to come to Azerbaijan. And you have beautiful nature - fantastic mountains, mountainous villages. Your hospitality is very impressive.
Every country has its tourist strategy. You have a lot of tourists from the Gulf, Russia and Iran. But if your question is how Azerbaijan could attract more tourists from Britain and Western Europe, then I would answer that you are starting to do that anyway by hosting big events like the Formula-1 race. People come here, spend a few days, and get to know the country better. Some people I’ve spoken to have done that and were really impressed and really enjoyed their trip here.
Another idea might be developing ecotourism. We’ve just given another Chevening scholarship to an Azerbaijani student to go to the UK and study a Master’s degree in this area. Such specialisation in tourism can be very valuable. It would be also very helpful to have more flights to Europe so more people could come. But of course it’s for the government to decide on its tourist strategy. We’re helping here, of course, with the British Council having provided vocational training in the area of hospitality. And a big Azerbaijani delegation will participate in the World Travel Market in London in early November".