TIME TO SHINE

Azerbaijan 2012 | TOURISM & SPORTS | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Abulfas Garayev, Minister of Tourism, on key targets and reforms, Eurovision 2012, and upmarket tourism.

HE Abulfas Garayev
BIOGRAPHY
Abulfas Garayev began his career in politics in 1978 as a teacher in Saatli district. For five years beginning in 1980 he was involved with the Youth League, and later became a Junior Officer in the Organizational Department of Narimanov District’s Executive Committee. After working as a lecturer for a year, he became the CEO of Improtex Commerce in 1992. In 1994 he became Minister of Youth and Sport, and in 2001 he added tourism to his portfolio. His current position is that of Minister of Culture and Tourism.

Since you took over the Ministry in 2006, what key reforms have you sought to implement at both the ministerial and national level?

Since 2006, the Ministry has prepared integrated measures and national programs that set the principles and priorities for cultural development. These have included programs for the development of theaters, museums, cinemas, and libraries. Also, we commissioned a program on the development of tourism for the 2010-2014 period, focusing on the development of the main assets of cultural and tourism institutions. Over the 2006-2011 period alone, government investment in culture and tourism increased 28 fold. The number of museums increased by 22% and the number of hotels by 78%. At the same time, we have experienced a substantial increase in the number of foreigners visiting Azerbaijan; the number of foreign tourists has been growing over the last five years at an average annual rate of 10%-11%, while the worldwide figure is between 4% and 4.5%. We expect to maintain this trend. We have also refurbished key infrastructure like the Heydar Aliyev Palace and the National Museum of Arts. I would like to add that the new Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum, among others, is reaching its final stages of construction and will be a very attractive touristic and cultural center for Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, we are strengthening international relations via initiatives such as the organization of cultural days abroad and the cultural days of other nations in Baku. We are hosting an increasing number of international cultural events including the Rostropovich Festival, Gabala Music Festival, the Puppet Theater Festival, and of course, the cornerstone: the biennial Baku World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, with the participation of relevant government agencies, ministries, NGOs, and international entities from all over the world.

How would you evaluate the achievements of the “Year of Tourism" held in 2011?

In general, it was a successful year that I would set as a benchmark for a new stage of development in the tourist sector. An action plan was adopted with key items and priorities to be implemented in terms of legislation, organization, planning, infrastructural 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.

How is the Ministry preparing to host Eurovision 2012?

Eurovision 2012 is one of the top list events for the country this year. Since we expect considerable scores of visitors for Eurovision week in Baku, the Ministry is implementing several key policies in order to make sure everything goes smoothly. We are improving the quality of hotel services, travel companies, and tourist information outlets. We are also working to see an improvement in guided tours, as well as complete the construction of several potential tourist attractions. We realize the importance of the project and are committed to doing all we can to make sure the event is well received.

What are the main challenges Azerbaijan faces in order to become a more popular tourist destination?

The relatively low exposure of the country to the world is a major challenge. Although there has been a great improvement, there are still many people around the globe that do not know much about Azerbaijan. For that reason, we have increased our presence in international media, fairs, conferences, and exhibitions. Another challenge is to facilitate the visa process for potential visitors, and we are already working on this with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We want to facilitate the issuance of electronic visas and online application capabilities. Tourism is considered a strategic sector, and thus these projects will be carried out with the full support of the government. The tourism industry had to begin from scratch after the collapse of the USSR. Tourist infrastructure was demolished, as none of it complied with international standards. Furthermore, there was no management capable of operating under a market economy. Finally, the expansion of transport infrastructure will also contribute to attracting more tourists in the future. In this regard, we are working on the development of trans-border tourism with neighboring states through bilateral projects. For example, there are plans to organize cruise tours on the Caspian Sea. Obviously, having advanced seaport infrastructure will help us greatly in the promotion of this idea. Tourist inflow analysis shows that 90% of foreign tourists enter the country via the airport and, therefore, the further expansion of Baku's airport infrastructure will facilitate the development of tourism. We will also not forget about the promising Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project, which will potentially tie into the Turkish and European rail network, making railroad travel from Europe to Azerbaijan and vice-versa a reality.

How would you assess Baku's potential to become a high-class tourism center?

The country has many opportunities to develop an elite tourism sector, including a well-developed dining industry, the oil industry, and the links between Azerbaijan and the Nobel, Rockefeller, and Rothschild families. The country also has a rich history and deep connections with European and world developments. That is not to mention its significant infrastructural developments, lavish hotels, shops, and restaurants. There were several worldwide brand hotels commissioned during 2011, including the Hilton, Kempinski, and Jumeira Bilgah Beach. In 2012 we expect the commissioning of JW Marriott, Four Seasons, and Fairmont brand hotels in Baku, with some other fashionable hotels on the way in the regions of Sheki and Gabala. We continuously work on the improvement of the quality of tourism services in terms of the development of best practices and standards, and new products. In addition, we are exploring new destinations in the country that could be used for tourism purposes.

Since the Ministry has activated the process of certification of eco-tourism zones, what is the potential for rural tourism in Azerbaijan?

We consider eco-tourism not only as an economic opportunity, but also as a social responsibility and commitment to future generations. In our view it is not only business for travel agencies and tour operators, it is also something that helps young people better understand and feel responsible for the preservation of biological diversity and natural resources. In this context, rural tourism is a very important factor. There is a plan for this segment that contains all steps related to the restoration of traditional economies, arts, and crafts in the regions, as well as the development of infrastructure and the creation of jobs. This has brought about a revival in agricultural activities, the refurbishment of historical and cultural monuments, and the development of transport infrastructure. Therefore, we are now actively developing this segment of the industry, and I see very good prospects for the future as the regions of Azerbaijan have a lot to offer in terms of traditions, arts, history, culture, customs, and nature.