Azerbaijan – the next great tourism destination showcased in Brussels

Press Release: Azerbaijan was placed firmly in the tourism spotlight during the inaugural Azerbaijan Tourism Forum Brussels, aimed at industry professionals and hosted by the Benelux office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) on 20 October at the Brussels Press Club Europe, in the heart of the European quarter. Attendees included H.E. Khazar Ibrahim, Azerbaijani Ambassador to NATO.

The forum came in the wake of the passing of a Presidential Decree on diversification of the economy in March 2016, which identified tourism as one of the eight priority sectors for development, and a Presidential Executive Order, passed in September 2016. This has paved the way for the foundation of a Tourism Council, the determination of new air routes, expansion of seaside and budget tourism and the development of tourism educational centres.

Following the introduction of a new ‘visa on arrival’ regime, according to official figures, more than 30,000 tourists from the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region visited Azerbaijan during January–June 2016. With an average spend of $700, including flights, for a week’s holiday, Azerbaijan – and Baku, in particular – represents very real value for money, with no compromise on quality. Altogether, this period saw a massive influx of 972,000 tourists come to the country. It is now projected that more than 1.5bn tourists per year will visit the country by 2020, as the country has now signed tourism co-operation agreements with 28 nations.

Keynote speaker Marc Verwilghen, Director, TEAS Benelux and former Belgian Minister for Foreign Trade, commented: “Even in the Benelux countries, where travelling is part of our lifestyle, we are unaware of the glories of Azerbaijan. The country lies on a crucial geographical location at the intersection of multiple crossroads – between Europe and Asia, and between East and West.”

H.E. Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the EU reflected: “Azerbaijan is coming closer to Europe and reflects European values. I urge our friends from Belgium and other EU countries to think about the tourism possibilities of my country. We are working towards the signing of a free aviation agreement next year. This will facilitate new tourism opportunities. All those in attendance are very, very welcome to visit Azerbaijan.”

Farid Isayev, Director, Head of Legal Services, KPMG Azerbaijan and Head of the Tourism Committee at the Azerbaijan–US Chamber-of-Commerce (AMCHAM), said: “AMCHAM has recommended that the list of countries qualified for the issuance of ‘visas upon arrival’ should be increased to include European countries and the US. We have also recommended that an ‘Open Skies’ policy should be implemented, enabling an enhanced range of air carriers to operate flights, thereby increasing competition and reducing prices.”

Issa Smatti, Area Manager, Nomade Aventure, who has made a full-length film about the splendours of the Azerbaijani regions that will soon be broadcast on TV5 Monde, commented: “For the programme, I visited Khinalug, situated around 200km from Baku. The population of this town speak a unique language, and are very proud of their unspoiled heritage. There are no hotels, so living in a homestay is essential. These are very comfortable, and the people are very pleasant and welcoming, and their cuisine is wonderful. Azerbaijanis in this region are delighted to greet foreigners – for them, this something new.”

Robrecht Willaert, Guest Professor, University of Leuven and Founder and Chief Editor of Travel magazine for 25 years, imparted some advice: “In my view, Azerbaijan is completely unknown in Belgium. It needs a comprehensive platform of promotion. Belgium is a very specific market, and manufacturing companies often regard it as being Europe in microcosm for product testing. Belgians love to experience new destinations, and a concerted programme of promotion using existing and new media is necessary. Travellers want a new experience – Azerbaijan must focus on the unique strengths of its country, culture and the people, above all else. If a promotional structure is implemented in the Benelux countries, then visitors from there will surpass all others in five years.”

Elgun Mammadov, CEO, Gilan Hospitality Group, explained: “A decade ago, Azerbaijan only received business travellers. Until 2014, tourists were predominantly from the CIS countries, Turkey and Europe. However, since then, they have generally been from the GCC countries. Tourism really spiked when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, when over 50m tourists entered the country during a two-week period. The European Grand Prix will continue to be hosted in Baku over the next five years.

“Gabala has the best tourism infrastructure of all the Azerbaijani regions, offering holidays ranging from skiing to medicinal oil treatments, trekking and the Gabaland children’s amusement park. Gilan operates a number of top-quality hotels in Gabala, Baku and other parts of the country.”

James Hogan, Managing Partner, Dentons Baku has spent over 25 years in Azerbaijan. He reflected: “The greatest Azerbaijani resource is its people, who rank amongst the most hospitable, accommodating and interesting in the world. A new law on tourism is currently awaiting ratification by the Mill Majlis (Azerbaijani Parliament). This will define the role of the State in determining its role in developing tourism, together with regulating tour operators and agencies and expanding international relations.”

The US-based Azerbaijani journalist Nikki Kazimova, author of Azerbaijan – Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture, said: “Younger travellers are more likely to be staying in homestays in the regions, so it is important that western tour operators have local partners on the ground that can help place culture in context. Hospitality is sacred in Azerbaijan, and traditional houses have rooms dedicated to guests. One essential phrase in Azerbaijan is ‘be my guest.’ Tourism also brings new influences into the country, and that is wonderful. Many of the misconceptions about my country, particularly regarding the role of women and religion, need to be abandoned.”

Mr Verwilghen summed up by saying: “The future for Azerbaijan is brilliant, particularly in the tourism sector, and this will play a very important role in the future of the nation. TEAS always aims to place Azerbaijan on the map, and that has been the objective for today.”

The event concluded with a networking dinner.

Sponsors and Partners: Azerbaijan Business Hub Netherlands, Dentons, and Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT).

 

Presentations:

Robrecht Willaert

Elgun Mammadov

Farid Isayev

Issa Smatti

James Hogan