OPEN ALL SEASONS

Azerbaijan 2012 | TOURISM & SPORTS | REVIEW: TOURISM

On the heels of the “Year of Tourism," Azerbaijan looks set to become a serious contender on the alternative holiday scene as it gears up to host Eurovision 2012.

With many features of a major tourist destination, Azerbaijan hopes to leverage its diverse ecology, historical appeal, and developing winter and summer recreation facilities following the “Year of Tourism" in 2011 to boost visitor numbers to the country. Success at Eurovision also means the country has won the opportunity to show off its potential when it hosts the event in May 2012.

As part of the government's focus on the sector, the “Year of Tourism" was punctuated with the opening of new facilities across the country, including several world-class brand hotels. Also on the drawing board is a new tourism law that it is hoped will bring much needed regulation to the sector, while better integrating the tourism sector with the world market.

Over the 2006-2011 period, government investment in the tourism sector increased 28 fold and the number of hotels across the country grew by 78%. Furthermore, the number of foreign visitors to Azerbaijan over the same period has grown at an average annual rate of 10%-11%. “[The Year of Tourism] was a successful year that I would set as a benchmark for a new stage of development in the tourism sector," Abulfas M. Garayev, Minister of Tourism, told TBY. “An action plan was adopted with key items and priorities to be implemented in terms of legislation, organization, planning, infrastructure development, and the popularization of domestic tourism as well as the promotion of national tourism products. Therefore, I believe that this was a very fruitful year and a great experience in understanding the strategic positioning of tourism in the economy."

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2.23 million foreigners visited the country in 2011, of which 1.8 were leisure tourists, up from less than a million five years ago. Income totaled AZN966.3 million, up 26% over 2010. Indeed, by the end of 2011, there were 514 hotels and hotel-type facilities operating in the country, up from 499 in 2010. The increase brought up the overall number of beds in Azerbaijan to 33,393, 11.8% more than the previous year.

LUXURY & BUSINESS TRAVEL

A total of 30 new hotels were established in 2011, and 45 more are under construction both in Baku and the regions of Azerbaijan. In 2011, in Baku alone three five-star hotels opened their doors, and three are set to do so in 2012. The arrival of international hotel chains such as Sheraton, Kempinski, Hilton, Hyatt, and Fairmont among others is contributing to capacities and standards within the sector, and increasing the country's luxury appeal.

Over recent years, Baku has also seen its many hotels play host to more meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions, putting the city on the map for regional MICE tourism. According to the Central Bank of Azerbaijan (CBAR), 33.5% of all tourists come for business. Driving the MICE tourism sector are event organizers such as Iteca Caspian, which will hold 23 sectoral exhibitions, conferences, and seminars in sectors from food processing to oil and gas. Iteca's main industry exhibitions are supported by international organizations, and both leading companies and government bodies will act as partners to the events in 2012.

EUROVISION 2012

Branded one of the most significant cultural events in Azerbaijan's history, preparations are underway to prepare the capital for the Eurovision Song Contest 2012, which is expected to attract 50,000-60,000 visitors. The event is seen as an opportunity to showcase Azerbaijan's potential as a destination for tourists and investments alike, with the Ministry involved in helping hotels to gear up through the Azerbaijan Tourism Organization. In addition, work to improve the quality of service in hotels, and the installation of POS-terminals is also being carried out.

The event is to be staged in Baku Crystal Hall, which is under construction on Baku's Caspian shore. Its capacity will be 23,000, and approximately 16,000 people will be able to attend rehearsals and live editions of the Eurovision Song Contest shows in May.

A WALK THROUGH HISTORY

Blessed with natural and man-made wonders, Baku's location between East and West has seen it fall under many empires, including the Roman, Persian, Ottoman, and Russian, leaving it with many sites of historical interest. Baku's historic “Old City" is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, and is a much-loved destination for tourists and locals alike, known for its charming narrow streets and timeless atmosphere. Visitors should be sure to check out the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which was built in the 15th century by Ibrahim I of Shirvan, who chose Baku as his capital, and the Maiden's Tower, finished in the 12th century and in legend said to be from where the Khan of Baku's daughter threw herself to her death.

Visitors to Azerbaijan are also often enchanted with the beauty of its carpets, which have been weaved in the region for hundreds of years. As a testament to the tradition, UNESCO proclaimed the Azerbaijani art of carpet making a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage in 2010. Many examples of Azerbaijani carpets are on display at the Carpet Museum, which is soon to move to a larger and more modern venue in 2012.

Baku is also home to the Baku Atesgah, or “Fire Temple," which is now a museum attracting 15,000 visitors a year. For those willing to travel outside of Baku, the Qobustan Petroglyphs are unlikely to disappoint, and date back to between 5,000 and 40,000 years. The country is also considered the world's mud volcano capital, and offers alien vistas to those who make the trip.

MORE THAN BAKU

One of the most significant projects is the Shahdag Winter and Summer Complex. Starting from 2012, tourists will begin taking to the slopes at the complex, which is located in the Shahdag National Park, 32 kilometers from the center of the Gusar region in the north of the country. The complex, which was begun in 2006, has a total area of 2,058 hectares, and is located 1,300-2,300 meters above sea level. The Shahdag Winter and Summer Tourism Complex is the first alpine skiing resort in Azerbaijan, and nine aerial cableways will be put into operation as part of the first stage. In addition, the complex will also contain a 40-room hotel, restaurant, bar, cafe, shops, and a conference hall. Construction of additional aerial cableways, a golf course, clubs, hotels, the Shahdag Youth Center, 900-room hotel, and an equestrian facility are also planned as the next phase of the project. While efforts to thrust Azerbaijan onto the world tourism stage continue, the country still attracts most visitors from Georgia, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, with data suggesting they mostly visit the country's regions and national parks. In order to increase the numbers, however, the government is developing an action plan for the development of eco-tourism in the country, with streamlined border checks and designated eco-tourism routes through the country. Bureaucratic processes to obtain an entry visa are among the most significant complaints of many foreign visitors, however, and the issue remains a real challenge for the Ministry of Tourism, which is aware of the importance of speeding up the visa issuance process in a very important year for the country in terms of tourism and international exposure.

At the moment, work is underway on a system to issue visas online, which will reduce the process that currently can take up to two weeks. Furthermore, the Ministry of Tourism is holding talks with the EU to facilitate visa issuance. The signing of a visa facilitation deal between the EU and Azerbaijan will open the way for easier travel and people-to-people contact across Europe. The measures could include decreasing visa fees and reducing the number of documents required. Such an agreement is also expected to promote interaction between EU and Azerbaijani citizens and strengthen bilateral cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration.

Efforts to streamline the system have been accelerated thanks to Eurovision 2012. In this regard, the Ministry has already announced the simplification of visa procedures for all Eurovision travelers, and visitors to the song contest from participating countries will be able to obtain a visa at any of the international airports in Azerbaijan through the presentation of Eurovision tickets, official invitation letters issued by the Organizing Committee of the Eurovision Contest, or a document confirming accreditation to the event.