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Cultural tourism as a driving force for creative economy development in Azerbaijan

11:50 - 05 / 07 / 2017
Cultural tourism as a driving force for creative economy development in Azerbaijan

Nowadays, tourism industry in the modern world is a well-established mechanism and one of the highest income-generating and dynamic economic sectors.

urrently, tourism is viewed as the sector that encourages local economy, improves well-being of people and impacts quality of life and living standards. Therefore, building a positive image of a specific region on the tourism market becomes particularly relevant.  In this context cultural tourism is very important as it should contribute to tolerance ideals, acceptance and correct understanding of world-wide cultural diversity as a whole. This also corresponds to goals of the overall cultural policy.

Cultural contacts are maintained within series of inter-cultural projects of UNESCO and World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). They include large and long-term inter-regional projects aimed at establishing cultural and historical routes such as the Great Silk Road.

Cultural tourism development is impossible without cultural heritage as it envisages using historical and cultural potential of the countries. One of the most important conditions for cultural tourism development is a certain degree of concentration of cultural heritage objects. Another one is putting cultural heritage on spotlight through its creative and appropriate organization.  Therefore, an important goal of cultural policy is not just about building positive image of the region but also maintaining sustainable and careful attitude towards cultural heritage objects.  And the main goal of cultural tourism is acquaintance with architecture, art, music, theater, folklore, traditions, customs and lifestyle of people, i.e. culture and history of the country.  Cultural tourism itself makes significant contribution to enrichment of cultural heritage, facilitates preservation and development of traditional crafts, culture and folklore.

Azerbaijan, the country with huge cultural heritage, rich history, traditions and folklore, is one of interesting cultural tourism destinations.  We have talked to three speakers about current cultural tourism development trends in the country.

Our first speaker is Nahid Bagirov, chairman of Tourism Association of Azerbaijan and Vice-President for Europe of Executive Council of UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

"How well, in your opinion, is cultural tourism developed currently in Azerbaijan?"

"Upon gaining independence and till now tourism industry of Azerbaijan went a long way of development. Thanks to care and attention of the government, in particular, in recent years, tourism sector started to expand significantly. Tourism facilities in Azerbaijan have always provided and continue to provide high level services to local and foreign tourists. Currently, various tourism services exist in Azerbaijan including cultural, recreational, mountain skiing, sport, business, ecological, hunting and beach tourism.

Historical and religious monuments, which are many in Azerbaijan, especially attract cultural tourists travelling in the country. Such historical objects exist both in the capital city of Baku and regions. Azerbaijan has ancient history, rich culture and traditional hospitality which constitute huge potential for tourism sector development. Currently, various activities are underway to increase number of tourism routes and further improve tourism services quality."

"Which cultural routes are the most popular today?"

"One of the most important efforts in tourism development in Azerbaijan is integration of Azerbaijan tourism sector into the world tourism market through domestic, foreign and cultural tourism routes. In order to promote domestic tourism, 7 tourism routes were determined in regions in 2003. 4 of them are main and 3 are secondary routes.  Main routes are: Baku - Khachmaz, Baku - Balaken, Baku - Astara, Baku - Gazakh, supporting routes are Baku - the Apsheron peninsula, Baku - Nagorni Karabakh and Baku - Nakchivan.

After establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2006, efforts in this direction became more systematic. Relevant activities are underway in developing the most promising types of tourism in the given region. Existing archaeological, horse-riding, auto safari and carpet weaving tours in the country are pretty much attractive for tourists."

"What income can cultural tourism generate and what does it actually bring? What needs to be done to realize expectations?"

"Today, tourism industry is one of non-oil economic priorities in Azerbaijan. Decrees signed by President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev last year on Additional Measures for Tourism Development in the Republic of Azerbaijan as well as on Approval of the Road Map on Specialized Tourism Industry Development are aimed at developing the area and marked a new phase in this economic sector.  Efforts to eliminate existing flaws, create new tourism products and improve service quality specified in these documents will strongly encourage tourism development in Azerbaijan.

It is relevant to note that during April 10 - May 10 this year the first Baku Shopping Festival was held. The Festival with turnover of 10 mln. AZN provided the state budget with 5.6 mln. AZN revenues. Last year foreigners in Azerbaijan spent over $2 bn. for various services.

This upward trend continues this year as well. For example, during first three months of the last year foreign tourists spent 40,629,000 AZN via bank cards, within peer period of this year the respective amount is 91,134,000 AZN.

But though outcomes are positive, they are not enough as Azerbaijan has significant potential to develop tourism furthermore. And successful efforts on its efficient realization are underway.  We hope that in the upcoming years the results will be even more substantial."

"There are two cultural routes: "Alexander Dumas in the Caucasus" and wine tour which are included in EU program and implemented within Kiev initiative. Are they popular?"

"Unlike domestic tourism routes, international tours cover at least two countries and promote bilateral or multilateral cooperation in tourism. Such tours promote our region internationally. In this regard, "Alexander Dumas in the Caucasus" and "Wine, Culture and Tourism Exchange" projects can be considered quite successful. The country's infrastructure, reconstruction efforts in the regions, construction of new hotels provide favorable ground for various projects in this area. For broader promotion of this route, virtual ads are created, also films and videos are produced to increase interest in the route.

Besides two above-mentioned routes, also "The Great Silk Road", "German Settlements in Azerbaijan" and "Jewish Heritage European Route" projects should be noted. Cooperation with member countries is underway for further development of these routes."

"What can Tourism Association, Ministry of Culture and private companies do to make existing routes more interesting and increase their number?"

"All public and private entities involved in tourism industry work in cooperation environment. Our goal is to make tourism leisure activities in the country more exciting and memorable for both local citizens and foreigners through more efficient use of rich tourism potential of Azerbaijan. We know well that every tourist promotes the country or city where he had leisure time. And promotion can be either positive or negative. Therefore, we try to build our work on the best international experience in this area, implement the most progressive ideas to satisfy tourists with our country and services. We strive to demonstrate traditional hospitality of Azerbaijani people in every nuance ranging from training guides and explorers that service tourists to organization of their leisure time. I think, along with broad potential of the country in tourism, also hospitality of our people, respect for multiculturalism and tolerance values are contributing factors for making tourists choose Azerbaijan as their travel destination."

"What does "quality" of tourists depend on? In other words, how to attract the most cultural group of tourists and generate income on tourism? Any ideas?"

"For a few last years Azerbaijan has hosted a number of international level cultural, political and sports events. All this promotes interest in our country. Among tourists that visit Azerbaijan there are people from variety of countries and social groups. Also, nowadays number of business travelers increases. Recently established National Bureau for Tourism Promotion is active in this direction.

The Bureau mission includes such objectives as building international image of Baku, development of plan for long-term use of brand, control measures over brand use, re-branding at various levels, marketing coordination and increased satisfaction of tourists."

"And the last question: is there any statistics on tourists?"

"Currently, tourism industry has a special contribution to the country's GDP. Thanks to varied tourism products, Azerbaijan fills special niche on the international tourism market.  It also helps increase number of tourists that visit the country from year to year. For last 10 years it has increased over 5 times. For example, number of foreign tourists in Azerbaijan in 2016 was 2,242,783. This is 11.7% higher than in 2015. During first five months of 2016 768,000 tourists visited the country, while within the peer period this year there were 956,000 tourists. It means an increase by 188,000 individuals or by 24.5% compared to the last year.   Among foreign tourists in Azerbaijan in 2016 majority was from the following countries: Russia (33%), Georgia (22.5%), Turkey (13.9%), Iran (10.9%). Also, thanks to simplified visa procedure at international airports for citizens of countries like Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Japan, China, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, number of tourists that visited Azerbaijan significantly increased since 2016. For example, compared to 2015, in 2016 number of tourists from Jordan in Azerbaijan more than doubled, from Kuwait - increased 3.2 times, from Qatar - 5.5 times, Saudi Arabia and Oman - 10 times, UAE - 22 times and Iraq - 30 times.

Also, there were more visitors from Persian Gulf and Middle East, Asia, Africa, America and Australia. Now foreigners and apatrides can get electronic visa within 3 working days through ASAN Viza system ( The procedure includes three phases (application, payment, electronic visa download). State duty for this visa is USD 20. This electronic visa entitles the owner for one-time entry and up to 30-day stay period in the country."

Our second interlocutor is Fuad Akhundov, well-known historian and explorer.

"Fuad, you are also one of the most popular guides of Baku. Excursions are one of cultural tourism types. How well, do you think, is this type of cultural tourism developed in Azerbaijan?"

"I would not comment on "one of the most popular guides" phrase... As to cultural tourism development in Azerbaijan, I am not that good at the subject but know from experience that it is in the focus of the top level government entity that includes both these notions in its title - Ministry of Culture and Tourism. And their attitude is serious and professional. I hope for cooperation with the Ministry."

"How necessary is cultural tourism?"

"It is certainly necessary. But first of all, what is needed is the CONCEPT. It would be too self-confident, if I say that I have the one, but if a multi-profile team of experts deals with the task, I will be more than happy to make my adequate contribution."

"Has the excursion situation changed in the city? Do you feel support from the government? We all recall a video made a few years ago that showed police meddling into your excursion which infuriated the public. Has situation changed nowadays?"

"All I can say is that interest in excursions is quite high. As to my audience, 8-10 years ago it was predominantly English-speaking, meaning foreign, but now it becomes more Russian-speaking, meaning either Bakuvians or people from near abroad countries. There are more schoolchildren willing to go on excursions that cannot but make me glad.

As to support from the government or other entities, I have made an aphorism long ago: the best support from the government and wife is non-interference. Luckily, my wife does not interfere and the government in the capacity of the above-mentioned Ministry of Culture and Tourism often helps.

For example, last year the Ministry commissioned quite a good documentary film made by Sergei Shachin, director from Moscow, "Baku in the Mirror of the Times" where your obedient servant had a chance to participate. Therefore, in my case, it would be a sin to say something bad about the government.

Police attitude to the excursions is normal today. By the way, reaction of the Ministry of Interior to that incident was clear: one police officer was fired, another one was reprimanded, but it was not a goal in itself. More importantly, I gave a lecture to sergeant personnel of post-patrol service of two downtown districts where I enjoyed telling young police officers about locations where they served. I am retired police lieutenant-colonel and value relations with my former agency."

"I cannot but ask you about "Alexander Dumas in the Caucasus" tour as you are one of the scriptwriters of "The Return to the Caucasus" documentary film. What can you say about this route?"

"By the way, it is another project of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism implemented together with the "Arte" French TV channel in 2012. The route is very interesting indeed. By the way, trip made by Dumas, the father, to the Caucasus is the first and well-thought promotion campaign of the Russian Empire. Dumas visited Caucasus in 1858 when imam Shamil was not yet imprisoned but already doomed. While the first war in the Caucasus was still coming to an end, the Russian administration used this trip to build up an image of power that brings culture to the Caucasus. And the message had a part of truth indeed. However, if we look at Alexander Dumas' trip route to the Caucasus -  Derbend - Guba - Baku - Shаmakha - Sheki - Tiflis - we can see that almost the whole voyage included not disturbing North Caucasus but much more law-abiding Azerbaijan and Georgia.

It is Azerbaijani part of the trip that is depicted in "The Return to Caucasus" by Gerard Depardieu which reads lines from Dumas' "Travel to Caucasus" book in the opening scene of the film and then revives places described in the book with his appearance. I think, it is very interesting idea, though, for me, it's a bit too much of Depardieu and a little bit less of Dumas (laughs)."

"The French counterparts had their own vision of the project which was a bit different from ours, so, I do not think the topic is closed, but future will show when and how to get back to it."

"What do you think successful cultural tourism relies on? Do you think, quality of tourists plays major role in the matter?"

"As I have mentioned, successful cultural tourism relies on the concept. I do not have one-size-fits-all solution and frankly speaking, I have never thought of one. What I do are tours via non-traditional routes that I had developed myself in the past and now I try to rearrange them a bit (so that they do not become boring even for myself). I rarely hold tours to locations that include other guides. First, it is kind of non-collegial, if I may say so, second, I am sure, that any city's marvel is in its "unbeaten paths".

As to "quality" of tourists, I think, tourists' interest in the city should not be perceived from ethnic viewpoint only. By the way, I feel sorry now like never before that, unfortunately, I never used the Arabic language which I had studied at the Oriental Studies Faculty of Baku State University. And recently I have found a unique pre-Revolution photo of a beduin posing in front of one of the Old City caravan sarays (it is Art Garden today). I presented a copy of this photo to management of Art Garden restaurant. It would be good to put something like that in hotels with a note "beduins do not come over, they come back" (laughs).

Seriously speaking, high quality tourists, as you refer to them, can be attracted with simplified visa procedures, good and affordable hotels, descent ads abroad like "summer has come but you are still not in Baku?" and, what is most important, respect to ourselves.

Many of these are underway, the rest is quite practical to do. One of main signs of respect to ourselves is good waste bins in the streets and culture of waste dumping. As seen, it's not that difficult."

"What cultural tours would you suggest, if you were asked to? What should be in the focus in your opinion?"

"Do you recall old famous song "I would not speak for whole Odessa"? So, I would not dare to speak about country-wide cultural tours. It should be up to a serious and large team to decide but it's quite practical to achieve. Of course, every region has its own trump card, kind of "marvel", if you wish. In some regions it is architecture, in others - crafts, cuisine or both and plus something else like in Sheki, for example. This is where emphasis should be made.

Luckily, common ground is population friendly and hospitable toward tourists but, I think, the main everyday emphasis should be made on service level and, pardon me, sanitation. More specifically, on lavatories. Sorry for the prose, but material culture starts with toilets. Clean, neat and preferably with pleasant music and always with tissue paper. Without it, no tourism is possible, no matter what you do.

As known, everything starts with little details. So, at everyday level cultural tourism should be based on, pardon me, aftafa and tissue paper and their union should be stronger than that of "unforgettable" hammer and sickle (laughs)."

And of course, we could not but talk about cultural tourism to Javid Kazimov, director of scientific and cultural center at Administration of historical and cultural reserve "Icherisheher".

"Are there any positive recent developments in cultural tourism in Azerbaijan?"

"Azerbaijan has the strongest tourism resources. However, the main outstanding issue in tourism for years has been inadequate number of new and required tourism products on the market and new and modern tourism infrastructure with quality different from the old one. Thanks to huge efforts and timely reforms carried out by the country's leadership we now observe big differences in the whole tourism sector and in cultural tourism in particular.

Cultural tourism is the most popular in any country. It's natural, as culture is fundamental in development process, preservation and strengthening independence and peculiarity of any nation. Today, rapidly developing foreign tourism constantly raises a question: what do we have to show? 

It's no secret that when speaking about Greece, one immediately recalls vivid images of antique temples, Egypt attracts us with its pyramids, Rome - with its Coliseum and other world-known monuments of architecture and art. Everybody knows about Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, Liberty Statue and ancient Czech castles. Unfortunately, few people for now have an idea of how many interesting historical and cultural marvels there are in Azerbaijan, both in Baku and in regions.

Administration of historical and cultural reserve Icherisheher at the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan is responsible for two reserves (Icherisheher and Gala) and has been a unique instrument for ten years for carrying out government policy in tourism, culture and preservation of monuments in the territories mentioned above. Therefore, it is natural that we are among the first ones who feel tourism boom the country experiences today - as it is the Old City, Icherisheher which is a starting point of acquaintance with the city and country for almost every tourist. We are proud to say that development level of cultural tourism increases every year thanks to opening new museums, updating the museum expositions, expanding museum funds and many new technological innovations that make the Reserve more accessible and interesting for our visitors.

In our opinion, Icherisheher has relevant potential and should become a successful model not only at regional but at the global scale. Experience shows that we need four main factors for success: rich history and unique architecture, interesting cultural and entertainment events, modern tourism infrastructure, well-developed and high quality services. We can be sure to say that we have all these factors today."

"What is specifically done to improve quality of tourism in Icherisheher?"

"Icherisheher is not just a museum under the sky with hundreds of historical monuments. It is one of hearths of world civilization, the place where Baku was founded. Ancient Baku is the capital of powerful kingdom of Shirvanshahs. Palace of Shirvanshahs complex (residence of Shirvan rulers) in the reserve proves long-running statehood traditions of the Azerbaijani people.

For the past period the Administration has already created modern infrastructure for attracting tourists: information booths are installed in the reserve area, tourism routes are determined, guide service in both Azerbaijani and foreign languages is established. For tourists’ convenience, relations with large city hotels are established, group tours are available with transfers made right from the hotels. For the first time, audio guides in the Azerbaijani, Russian, English, French and German languages are implemented in open air in Icherisheher. Using headphones, tourists can get detailed information about historical monuments without any additional help. Electric cars are purchased to ensure tours are organized at the high international level.

As I have mentioned earlier, new and modern expositions are established in Icherisheher museums which attract high interest of tourists. Our another objective is to attract visitors' attention to main monuments (like Maiden Tower, Palace of Shirvanshahs Complex), provide adequate information on many other monuments which are not famous so far and plenty in the Reserve. For example, late last year with participation of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and First Vice-President of Azerbaijan Mehriban Aliyeva, Beyler mosque, one of the most wonderful mosques in the Old City was reopened after long conservation work period; currently, the mosque has very interesting exposition dedicated to the Holy Quran.

Also, the Administration completed renovation and restoration of the Puppets Theater which within the short period of time has become one of the most popular destinations for the Reserve visitors. Here you can enjoy incredible performance of puppeteers at shows which will help you learn Azerbaijani music culture as well. Currently, the theater stages "Leyli and Majnun" performance and we invite everyone to watch it, if they have not seen it yet.

Visitors will remember comfortable leisure in Icherisheher for long as it will be vivid, impressive, and which is the main point - interesting and informative. Signages to cultural tourism objects, navigation to tourism routes, reserve maps, brochures about the Old City (in Azerbaijani, Russian, English), mini-books, photo albums, calendars, postcards, music discs, souvenirs and other information materials considerably facilitate travel in the reserve and acquaintance with our cultural heritage.

We have not forgotten our ancient bread-baking tradition which foreign tourists also find very interesting - in Malaya Krepostnaya street (main tour route) a tendir stove is constructed. Nearby there are grocery shop, teahouse, other catering services decorated in traditional style." 

"What kind of excursions and tours are offered to tourists? And how are guides selected for them?"

"Already a few years ago the Administration introduced selection and attestation system for guides. Every two or three months new candidates take special tests and interviews and those who pass are given probation period with rotation at different expositions of the Reserve to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This is a complex process which, unfortunately, sometimes encounters a human factor problem: many simply cannot cope with the work schedule and responsibilities, therefore, we have to regularly recruit new personnel. However, despite of all that, we are proud to say that most tourists and visitors leave satisfied and get maximum information both about monuments and the Old City and the country as a whole.

We also focus on constant update of tour routes. It is very important to let the tourist to see maximum number of interesting locations and monuments, therefore, new locations and information are regularly added to the tours."

"How well can the excursions let tourists improve their knowledge about Azerbaijan?  And how to calculate this education dynamic, if it's possible and necessary."

"Naturally, the ongoing excursions are the first and foremost step to make the tourist interested in further traveling and exploring the country. During the excursion they can learn something they could never guess before, something new and so, may want to return to Baku and Azerbaijan over and over again. I think, we need to find something interesting for every group of tourists and then we will get exponential increase in interest and number of visitors as each of them will promote the trip to friends and family, share photos in social media becoming kind of instrumental in promoting cultural tourism in Azerbaijan."

"You have spoken about positives, are there any problems in cultural tourism sector?"

"I think, the main problem currently is lack of sufficient professional staff - guides who can fully satisfy increasing demand for such services. In this regard, it is good to see that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism conducts regular accreditation of specialists in this area. It is a very important step that clearly identifies professionals and those who just offer their services often without adequate knowledge and information background. Mostly the latter might cause inadequate or negative impressions among tourists."

"What do you think, "quality" of tourists in the country depends on? Is it necessary to view tourism development in this context?"

"You see, "quality of tourist" is quite a conditional notion. Yes, tourists are different in many ways: by interests, playability, preferred leisure type. But the host country should not differentiate between them.

And this is possible only through creating relevant infrastructure for any category of visitors to make sure that each of them finds something interesting and, which is the main point, may want to return here again.

Today, Azerbaijan is capable to provide everything needed for absolutely different dimensions - large sports events (Formula 1 Grand Prix, European Games, Islamic Solidarity Games, the upcoming European Football Championship-2020), beach recreational leisure, trips to marvelous region of the country, historical and ethnographic studies, culinary trips etc.

Respectively, various directions and tastes attract various categories of visitors, which is quite natural. Altogether, these tourists generate income for the country as a whole and for businesses that service them during their trips in particular."

The article is produced in cooperation with EU-Eastern Partnership Culture and Creativity Programme

Natalie Alexandrova


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