Azerbaijan, and Baku specifically, is an oil wealthy nation whose prosperity is visibly raising steel and concrete to the skies from the ground. By all accounts the Ilham Aliyev-led government is looking to convert petrol into tourism, much like Dubai has successfully done over the last 15 years. Yet, despite all of the infrastructure developed for the shopping-on-steroids approach of travel enticement, Azerbaijan still makes it difficult for most foreigners to visit.
Those obstacles keep Azerbaijan sitting at the #75th position in global tourist arrivals; compared to the United Arab Emirates who’s comfortably at 31st. Ah, but us travelers are usually so easy to get along with, no matter the size of our bank accounts. A few tweaks to the system and Azerbaijan might very well get its Dubai dream.
1. Allow Visa Free For The Countries That Travel Most
Currently, the only countries with relatively large internationally traveling populations with visa-free entry into Azerbaijan are Russia and China. The others primarily consist of Central Asian and former Soviet block countries. Not exactly the ideal pool of visitors to choose from. (How many Moldovans could be planning a trip to Azerbaijan?) Turks like myself can purchase a visa upon arrival and if you’re not savvy to it, get scammed out of [insert arbitrary amount] needed to pay for an ‘entry visa photo’.
As far as the process to getting a visa for most everyone else, that can require 10 business days or more plus involve you purchasing a ‘travel voucher’ from an accredited travel agency in Azerbaijan. On top of that there are forms (who doesn’t enjoy having to fill out three sets of those) along with a roughly $180 (~140 Euro) fee. There is a very strong correlation between GDP and visa restrictions – have a high gross domestic product (Azerbaijan’s has increased 6 times in the last decade) and put many nationalities on visa-free status – and the odds are you’ll have many more tourists visiting.
2. Develop And Encourage A Budget Travel Trail
Many people in sectors of the travel industry often complain that backpackers are practically useless for their overall bottom lines since they “don’t spend.” According to researchers from MIT, people around the world tend to spend the same percentage of their overall time and budget traveling. This “Time Travel Budget” theory holds that generally, the more free time one has (think students on break) the more of that time they’ll spend traveling. (We’re all travel-addicts at heart apparently.) So, backpackers and other budget travels spend less per day but tend to spend longer time in a given destination. There are also more people in the ‘budget travel’ category. Luxury travelers and fancy-pants may jet in for short trips and spend a lot more but in the end, there’s less of a gap in spending between the two types of travelers than assumed.
In Baku, the main port of entry for most travelers, budget accommodations are very difficult to find, with hostels practically non-existent and hotels ranging from $80 on up. Those prices don’t make Baku as enticing as it could be, given the added visas costs and procedures.
3. Develop Basic Mass Transit To Tourist Lands
Hiring a driver and automobile is rarely the cheapest way to get around in most places (unless you’re renting a car in Bahrain). And, many of Baku’s former train and bus options to popular sites like Gobustan’s mud volcanoes no longer exist. In a country where so much of the infrastructure is government-mandated, and few buses and a train or two to the major sites, towns, and areas travelers want to visit would go a long way to getting more people to go to them. I’ve found that people are less concerned about spending money when it saves them time or effort (group hug for all of us lazy folks).
Airport shuttles or direct buses too would certainly help travelers (especially in the higher-budget demographic) as that type of convenience tends to leave with a favorable first and last impression. A good thing if you want repeat business.
Not To Dismiss The Potential
These points aren’t to say that Azerbaijan isn’t worth visiting, just that they’re probably holding back on their travel potential in the Caucuses but raising the barriers on entry. Of course there’s plenty to see in Baku alone in addition to the intangible serendipity in Azerbaijan. As neighboring Georgia sees modest gains in visitors, the addition of Azerbaijan could be the beginning of a budding backpacker train in the Caucuses. The nomads upon which will do more for Azeri tourism, with their word of mouth, than any policy could produce.
I can also see Egypt using some of this advice. Although we have many budget accommodation and stuff like that, I don’t see an encouragement from the tourism boards to backpackers at all, they are always more concerned about the luxury tourism and the people that want to come and stay in 5 stars all inclusive resorts
I think it would be a good method to attract more travelers in general considering the decline in tourism since revolution. Backpackers are likely to be the first to arrive prior to any upcoming recovery.
I couldn’t agree more about relaxing (or cheapening) visa regulations and offering more budget-oriented options. During our brief visit years ago, my Azerbaijani friend found us an apartment in Baku to rent for a few nights. But he warned me, “Don’t speak English. I told her you are Estonian. If she finds out you’re American the price will go up a lot.” And this was considered “cheap” at $60/night.
$60 is quite cheap for Baku! It’s really positioned well for a good tourist industry, though hopefully more options will become available in the near future.
I think these changes will be profoundly effective but (sorry to disagree, Anil) I don’t think any of these are easy. From a bureaucratic perspective (since that’s my job) it is very difficult to change all the points you have mentioned for encouraging tourism. Visa is diplomacy intensive and takes years to have reciprocal agreements in place. Government investment in infrastructure is probably the easiest to do if there is oil money, but proposals always get stuck on the ‘return on investment’ parameter which has circular reasoning (and therefore hard to get political will): can’t build without enough tourists, no tourists without infrastructure. Finally, lodging and boarding is private sector and it will respond quickly to demand, there is nothing the government can do about it…
Thanks Priyank for your insights. In the case of Azerbaijan though it seems odd to me to work toward creating a luxury tourist destination without addressing these issues. I suppose though no matter what your motivations and goals are there’s always bureaucracy in the way 😉 It will be interesting to see what direction Azerbaijan’s tourism industry takes and how or if these changes will eventually happen in the short-term.