construction man statue

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.

baku heydar aliyev1. 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.

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2. Develop And Encourage A Budget Travel Trail

baku coastline

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

yanar dag azerbaijan

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).

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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.