Creative solutions are often born out of crisis. Long dependent on oil, its primary historical export commodity, Azerbaijan’s relatively newly independent economy, battered by market fluctuations, a devaluated currency, and evaporating fossil fuel revenues, experienced a national wake-up call a few years ago with speculation about the threat of the next potential global financial crash. Examining sustainability models for countries in similar circumstances: relatively small size, vast and diverse natural spaces, ancient cultural heritage and young population eager to make its mark on the world stage – (Not) surprisingly, Iceland – an island nation 3000+ miles away – emerged as an inspiration for tourism as a solution to jump-starting diversification of an economy.
Azerbaijan’s touristic potential is, indeed, formidable: from the Caspian Sea shoreline to the hiking and ski trails in the Caucasus Mountains, the fascinating East-meets-West vibe, the richly textured gastronomical scene, and its quickly expanding contemporary arts reputation. In May 2018, the government established the State Tourism Agency and Board, a dedicated official tourism promotion body. A step in the right direction, the new Board has more power and resources than the former program under the Ministry of Culture umbrella. We sat down with Fuad Naghiyev, the head of the newly formed agency, to talk about the challenges and potential of putting a country on the global travel map, and highlight three distinct places that potentially could make Azerbaijan a must-see destination for any discerning traveler.
What is the new dedicated national tourism board trying to accomplish?
We lead our tourism industry in marketing Azerbaijan as an internationally competitive, premier four-season tourism destination where travelers have access to extraordinary experiences. We provide a consistent voice for Azerbaijan in the international tourism marketplace. Our vision is to inspire the world to explore our country. Our purpose is to sustain a vibrant and profitable tourism industry by supporting a cooperative relationship between the private sector and the governments. As tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing sectors, it is strategically important for Azerbaijan to generate revenues through effective marketing and promotions, supported by aligned market research, to create jobs and generate wealth for Azerbaijanis by stimulating demand for reasons to visit our beautiful country.
What type of a traveler should be excited about Azerbaijan?
Our current approach targets travelers in the Caucasus region (Russia, Georgia and Turkey), Asia (China & India) and Middle East. However, our regional hub structure allows us to be nimble and opportunistic, and to capitalize on new marketing opportunities as they arise. The global tourism market is saturated with enticing destinations. Appreciating the need for Azerbaijan to make a distinct mark in the minds of consumers, we invite international travelers to come and enjoy authentic Azerbaijan experiences rather than simply visit places—from culinary traditions and cultural tours to luxury shopping and beautiful hiking trails.
Our strategy includes cooperation with our neighbors: Russia, Georgia and Turkey. The new Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport has increased the annual capacity by millions of passengers and was recently awarded with highly coveted five-stars Skytrax rating. It helps perceive the Caucasus as an authentic yet easy-to-reach and comfortable destination. This reinforces the Silk Road tradition and makes further development attractive for the region as a whole. The ease of entry visa requirements, gastronomic escapes and unique luxury experiences, has already been attracting many travelers from the region. They are amazed with genuine hospitality, touched by local warmth and charm and share their memories creating the unforgettable experience.
What would be one reason to visit Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan is one of few places in the world that is offering a truly authentic experience. In Baku, you can walk from the UNESCO heritage site of the Old City to the futuristic skyscraper complex Flame Towers in minutes. Where else can you time-travel like this?!
Must Visit: QABALA
This town, nestled in the old-growth chestnut forests, is almost a portal to a bygone fairyland. You can hike to the 2,500 years-old Chukur Gabala gates still standing at the site of an ancient capital, or swim in the Yeddi Gozel waterfalls in the Ismailli Reserve while listening to the songs of more than 100 species of birds that call this sky-high area home. For a more modern experience, take the four-stage cable car ride to the Tufandag all-seasons recreational complex, with its stunning scenery. Don’t forget to indulge in dashsarasy kebab, a specialty of mint-marinated meat grilled between two mountain stones!
Must Visit: SHEKI KHAN PALACE
Few places can capture the best and the worst of times for a country quite like this palace. It’s worth the few hours trip into the heart of the Caucasus to discover this hidden gem, conceived by Azerbaijani royalty as a just-in-case getaway amid geopolitical tensions in the region in the early 1800s. The Sheki Khan palace is a rare architectural work, currently under review to become the UNESCO World Heritage site, with its expressive architectural structure, numerous glass-clad walls, which decorate rich interiors. Peculiarly contemporary in its architecture, the palace highlights the traditional craftsmanship of Azerbaijan’s glass, wood, ceramic and iron masters. The surrounding lavish royal gardens with centuries old trees add another picturesque moment for visitors. This is where you feel the strong cultural crossroads connection of this ancient Silk Road outpost. Just wait till the sunset hits those stained-glass windows!
Must visit: LAHIJ VILLAGE
This is one of those places you just don’t believe still exist! A vibrant community with its own indigenous language, it has been famous throughout the Middle East for its unique copper and brass craftsmanship. Cut off from the world by deep snowfall in the mountainous overpasses, the trade and visitations last throughout the summer months only. One of the oldest human settlements in the Caucasus, its earthquake-proof sewage system was built about 1000 years ago and works without fail.
Challenge your friends to beat all that in their Instagram vacation stories!