Azerbaijan 2012 | TOURISM & SPORTS | FOCUS: EUROVISION 2012

Winning the Eurovision Song Contest is an accomplishment that comes with the privilege of staging the event. For Baku, it could not be better timing.

When young singers Eldar Gasimov (Ell) and Nigar Jamal (Nikki) made Eurovision history in Düsseldorf in May 2011, they had little notion of the cultural momentum and economic implications of their success. The trophy comes hand-in-hand with the responsibility of hosting the contest, and as the first semi-final of the 57th Eurovision Song Contest approaches on May 23, the country prepares to receive an estimated 50,000-60,000 visitors. It is hoped that the contest will showcase Azerbaijan's increasing international potential and make a lasting impact on the tourism industry. With an elegant and brand-new venue, simplified visa requirements, and important partnerships, the capital city is aiming to impress a wide range of international guests and take full advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate its achievements.

An event of this magnitude has yet to be held in Baku, and it will attract tourists, fans, and press from every corner of Europe. To prepare for the contest, the Ministry of Tourism has invested in hotel services, travel companies, and tourist information outlets, as well as an improvement in guided tour options and the construction of several potential tourist attractions. Abulfas M. Garayev, Minister of Tourism, told TBY, “We realize the importance of the project and are committed to doing all we can to make sure the event is well received."

There are signs that European tourists and other potential visitors from around the world have already displayed interest in the country, as TripAdvisor's rating for the country jumped 4% shortly after Baku was announced the host city. As preparations also continue on schedule, Baku is brushing off criticism that it wouldn't be able to support such an influx of tourists.

Indeed, a Ministry of Transport spokesperson, Namiq Hasanov, guarantees that transport infrastructure in Baku will be fully ready to host Eurovision 2012. A variety of road junctions are being built in various parts of the capital, such as the Neftcilar, Parliament, Heydar Aliyev, Bulbul, and Ziya Bunyatov avenues, as well as Zarifa Aliyeva Street, and Azneft Square. Furthermore, the government is committed to building a number of large parking lots in traffic-intensive locations throughout the city, such as Azadlig Square. Intensive construction work is also underway to complete the Mardeken-Bilgah-Sumgait highway toward the airport, and much of this work was finished in late 2011. “In addition to improving the road and transport infrastructure in Baku, these measures aim to make life comfortable for the population," Hasanov told the press.

In addition to tourist infrastructure and guest facilities, Eurovision 2012 has necessitated the construction of the Baku Crystal Hall venue. The hall boasts a seating capacity of 23,000, complete with several VIP lounges. It was built by German contractor Alpine Bau Deutschland AG, and the government allocated approximately AZN6 million ($7.6 million) for its construction. In addition, a media center designed to manage the production is being constructed nearby, where 1,500 technicians will operate state-of-the-art equipment for the show. The complex is set for completion on March 31, 2012, and is the largest concert hall the song contest has ever been held in, as well as the largest arena in Azerbaijan. In the future, Baku Crystal Hall also has the potential to host a variety of cultural and sporting events.

Owing to government support and avid promotion of the event, ticketholders from participating countries will be able to obtain a visa at the airport in Baku, as long as they have completed the appropriate paperwork from the organizing committee and European Broadcasting Union (EBU). President Ilham Aliyev signed the decree on February 10, 2011, opening the gates to everyone interested in attending the contest, and simplifying the visa application process. Visitors, journalists, and fan-club members can enter the country as early as April 15, 2012. In accordance with this temporary legislation, the Foreign Ministry is set to publicize the process and the laws regarding the decree on its website, and the Cabinet of Ministers will be responsible for managing any logistical issues. To enter separately from Eurovision, visitors to the country must apply for a visa at their home country's consulate.

On August 17, 2011, Azercell was announced as the primary sponsor of the event, and the company will also assume the responsibility of presenting partner. Azercell is the largest telecommunications provider in Azerbaijan, and is part of TeliaSonera, Europe's fifth-leading ICT company. Ali Ağan, CEO of Azercell, told TBY, “Azercell will ensure that both our guests from abroad and our customers in the country enjoy a seamless and impeccable mobile communication experience, and also get special promotions and services dedicated to the event." The company has also expressed its intention to utilize technology and human capital to make the event successful and beneficial for the promotion of Azerbaijan as a nation. Other partners include Baltika Baku, a part of Carlsberg Group, and Schwarzkopf, one of Europe's leading beauty product brands.

In addition to domestic support, many international companies will be present in Baku to support the production. Representatives of the EBU, foreign guests, officials, representatives of the diplomatic corps, cultural figures, and art workers as well as other contest officials attended a ceremony at Buta Palace on January 27, 2012. Representatives of public broadcasters arrived from across Europe to cover the ceremony, which included the symbolic presentation of the competition's logo. Moreover, special light and sound technology from Turkey and Germany was demonstrated, revealing a small hint of what is to come in May 2012.

One of the longest-running programs in history, Eurovision has aired on live television every year since it began in 1956, and the contest has recorded between 100 million and 600 million international viewers annually. Participating countries are active members of the EBU, which Azerbaijan joined in 2008 through its broadcasting network Ictimai Televiziya (ITV). Since then, Azerbaijan has come in at 8th, 3rd, and 5th place in the contest in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively. In a competition that has been spurned for being politically charged, the head of the Foreign Relations Department of the President, Novruz Mammadov, admits that “international successes [such as Eurovision] are never achieved without political and economical grounds" in a December 14 speech. Indeed, hosting the competition will likely cost a hefty €40 million, and even if the concert hall is full, the economic returns may not balance the price tag.

The contest is based on a televoting and SMS-voting system combined with an international jury, who award 10 countries points from one to eight, 10, and 12. The voting is split 50/50 between the people's choice and the preselected jury. In 2011, Azerbaijan won the competition with 221 points, receiving 12 points from Turkey, Russia, and Malta. Historically, Azerbaijan has given the most points to Ukraine, Turkey, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia. In 2012, more than 40 countries will compete for the coveted crystal microphone trophy.

Born in Baku in 1979, Sabina Babayeva will represent Azerbaijan in this year's edition of the contest. Tickets will range between €30 for a rehearsal viewing and €240 for the final live show on May 26, 2012, when Sabina will make her international debut.