The medieval walled city of Baku, with its Maiden Tower; the wine and history of Ganja; golfing in Quba; the extraordinary architecture and mausoleums of Nakhchivan; the caravanserais and palaces of Shaki; the Qabala music festival and ski resorts; the museums and monasteries of Stepanakert; Gubustan national park, with its Paleolithic cave paintings and volcanoes; and the water parks and beaches of Nabran—Azerbaijan’s tourist attractions are many, and exceptionally varied for a country of its size.
Azerbaijan encompasses an area of exceptional natural diversity. Its climate alone spans an almost unprecedented nine distinct zones, and its land descends from high mountain landscapes with volcanoes and skiing, to the historic center of Baku. The challenge for the government is to better promote the country beyond Baku—most visitors only see the capital and perhaps its Caspian shore. There is plenty of potential for growth in travel and tourism (T&T), and the success of recent international events such as the 2015 European Games and the upcoming Formula One put Azerbaijan firmly on the map.
The sector’s strength lies in its growth potential. Tourism contributed 2.2% to the nation’s GDP in 2014, AZN1.3 billion, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. The sector supported 91,500 jobs in 2014, or 2% of the total employed in the country. Total investment in the sector for that year was AZN388 million, accounting for around 2.5% of the country’s overall budget. This amount was forecast to rise by 10.5% in 2015, and by 5.5% YoY to 2025. To set this in context, out of 184, the country is ranked 16th by long-term growth potential. The direct contribution of travel and tourism to Azerbaijan’s economy is forecast to rise to 2.7% of GDP, or AZN2.6 billion, by 2025.
The travel and tourism industry
In 2015, the Culture and Tourism Ministry launched its strategy for developing tourism from 2016 to 2025. Azerbaijan attracted 2.1 million visitors in 2015 and is aiming to attract 5 million by 2025. In 2015, most visitors were from neighboring countries—Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Iran accounted for the lion’s share of trips to Azerbaijan. The previous T&T strategy program, from 2008 to 2015, focused on preserving and promoting historic monuments across the country. From 2007 to 2012, the number of tourists visiting the country doubled, from 600,000 to a clear 1.2 million. The new strategy builds upon Azerbaijan as the ancient “Land of Fire,” and will also run an aggressive program of discounted rates for flights, hotel deals, and holidays. An important part of the 2016-25 Strategy is to overhaul the country’s visa system, which is expensive, bureaucratic, and an unnecessary hassle for many visitors. Soviet-era customs remain, such as needing a certified letter of invitation from the host party in Azerbaijan. This system is gradually being replaced by e-visas and visas-on-arrival for selected countries. Azerbaijan has opened tourism offices in the UAE and Germany, and more are expected to be opened in similarly key markets in the near future.
Tourism is the world’s fastest growing sector, and Azerbaijan is working to make the industry much more significant for its economy. The recent, ongoing, increase in tourism in Azerbaijan has been good news for the hospitality sector and the construction industry. Many top international hotels have opened their doors in recent years, helping to attract a new cohort of business travelers also. Currently, at any one time, the country can accommodate 35,000 guests in 530 hotels.
The biggest developments have been in central Baku, where landmark hotels like the Four Seasons are setting new standards for the industry. Almost all the five-star international hotels have opened. The Hotel Crescent, billed as one of the most luxurious hotels in the world (six, not five, stars above the door), is due to open its doors later this year. Designed by South Korean firm Heerim Architects, the hotel is to be shaped as a crescent moon, with 33 stories. The hotel, described as “the ultimate in luxury,” will consist of 360 rooms and 124 serviced condominiums. The rooms will afford views either across to the Caspian, or to the skyline of Baku itself—embodying Azerbaijan’s location as a gateway to regions and business.
Located on an artificial island just offshore, the project leads to entertainment, business, and retail centers, and is a prime example of how tourism interlinks to other sectors, stimulating development to mutual gains. Hotel Crescent is part of the Crescent Development Project, which is due to open in 2017—a vast 450,000-sqm project known as Crescent Bay developed by Gilan Holding. A part of Gilan Holding is Gilan Tourism, which has been a significant investor in the wider tourism industry, for which the Caucus Point Hotel is the latest addition to its high-end offerings.
Azerbaijan has the greatest biodiversity of any country in Europe or Central Asia, and its eight national parks reflect this remarkable breadth of natural beauty. The Zangezur National Park is home to the Anatolian leopard and the golden eagle, among its 36 species of mammal, and 139 plants. The semi-desert Shirvan National Park, with its unusual mix of desert and marsh landscapes, has one of the world’s most important bird populations. The Ag-Gol park is similarly rich in birdlife, with 142 species recorded, and 89 listed as breeding within the park’s confines. Hirkan Park is a forested mountainside region, 99% of which is under the cover of woodland. Its forests are home to the scarce Persian leopard—the park straddles the beautiful Talysh mountains of the country’s far southeast, bordering northwestern Iran. The Altyaghach National Park is similarly forested, but formed almost entirely of low-lying deciduous trees to the country’s east.
Shahdag National Park, in the country’s north, is the largest in the Caucasus region at 130,500ha, and was set up in 2006 to protect its fragile alpine forest ecology, home to brown bears, ibex, and the rare Caucasian chamois. Shahdag was founded with the assistance of a $17-million loan from the World Bank. The other two parks are the Absheron, sanctuary of seals and marine life, and the remote Göygöl, the country’s newest park, established in 2008, with its famous lake of the same name, and 420 species of alpine plants.
Baku’s famous monuments include its medieval walled city and its ancient 30-meter-high Maiden Tower. The lower half, where the walls reach a thickness of 5 meters, dates from the 6th century BC. These foundations are thought to be a Sassanid-era Zoroastrian site. Not far from Baku is another interesting tower, the Ateshgah fire temple, built in the 17th century. Two other towers in Baku, at Mardakan Castle, date from the 12th century.
Outside the Baku region, Gobustan, famous for its rock art, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. The area has more than 6,000 rock paintings dating back an extraordinary 4,000 to 40,000 years ago. The Palace of Shaki Khans was built in 1797 as a summer retreat for the Khan’s family, surrounded by cooling pools and plane trees.
Sport has deep roots in Azerbaijan, with traditional freestyle wrestling having given away to football and chess over recent decades as public favorites. In contemporary times, the 2015 inaugural European Games, held in Baku, set a high precedent for the country’s tourism industry to follow. The Games drew 28,300 visitors during the 17-day competition. And the Formula One European Grand Prix, to be held on the streets of Baku in June 2016, is expected to increase visitor numbers by 40,000 over the same period in 2015. Azerbaijan’s state budget holds an allocation of AZN324 million for sporting events in 2016. Azerbaijan is also home to long-running sporting events, the oldest of which, the Azerbaijan Chess Championship, was first held in 1934, and has been an annual fixture for international chess ever since. The World Chess Olympiad is also coming to Baku in 2016, further underlining Azerbaijan’s connection with the noble sport. Azerbaijan owes its privileged position in modern chess to former President Heydar Aliyev, who oversaw the opening of more than 70 chess schools across the country.
Indeed, sports are playing a growing role with the development of Azerbaijani civil society. When asked about the role of sports in Azerbaijan, Azad Rahimov, Minister of Youth and Sports, told TBY that, “Azerbaijan has always had sports at the center of the government’s care and vision.” And, since independence, Azerbaijan has achieved much. At the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, Azerbaijan participated with 23 athletes, winning just one silver medal. Fast forward to the London Olympics in 2012, and Azerbaijan took part with 53 athletes and took home two gold, two silver, and six bronze medals. And now, as Formula One cars prepare to descend on the streets of Baku this summer, the Minister is enthusiastic about the legacy the race will leave; “the challenge for us is to convert this awareness and general level of curiosity into genuine excitement and passion for the sport. Ideally, we want to create a new generation of F1 fans here in Azerbaijan, and hopefully one day we may even see an Azerbaijani driver.” It is now hoped that hosting the event will help to establish Baku as a home of major international sporting events, putting Azerbaijan on the map. And the power of Formula One shouldn’t be underestimated. In an interview with TBY, Formula One Group Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone said that, “I personally did not know much about Azerbaijan until I went there myself. I did not quite understand the country before I went, but I was able to find out what it was like during my travels. This is what it means for the country and this is what we are hoping to be able to do: let people from around the world have a look at Azerbaijan.”
Moving forward, Azerbaijan will have an increasing amount to offer tourists. Against the backdrop of the Baku skyline, Formula One cars, as they speed around the city track, will paint an exciting picture for millions of people around the world as they ponder their next city getaway, and go a long way to promoting not only the capital city, but the diverse regions that make up this emerging country.