Travel And Tour World: What are the necessary steps ATB has taken to boost tourism in Azerbaijan? Elaborate for us.
Florian Sengstschmid: When the Azerbaijan Tourism Board was established in 2018, our main goal was to introduce all these unique features of Azerbaijan to the international audience and promote Azerbaijan as a tourism destination globally. Having launched our global marketing campaign “Take Another Look” in the same year, we successfully presented Azerbaijan at international exhibitions and roadshows together with the Azerbaijani travel industry members. We won multiple awards for the “Take Another Look” campaign and simultaneously promoted Azerbaijan via a network of international representative offices established in several countries.
We were able to achieve this success thanks to the holistic approach we developed to connect all the direct tourism industry actors, which made it possible to showcase the undiscovered beauties of Azerbaijan. We strongly believe that our success gained over just a few years is due to the unified vision we share with our stakeholders. While we still aim to place Azerbaijan among the most successful tourism destinations in the world, it is more important than ever to keep the economic and social advantages of tourism as well as protect our natural, historical, cultural and social environment from any negative impacts.
Travel And Tour World: Azerbaijan’s decision to open a tourism promotion and trade office in Israel is surely a boost to the strategic alliance ties between the two countries. Do you have any plans for tourism and cultural exchange between these two countries?
Florian Sengstschmid: Azerbaijan is home to multiple ethnicities and always takes pride in the diverse beliefs of its multicultural population. Among them all, Azerbaijan also has a rich Jewish heritage. Up in the north of the country, in Guba region, there is a place called Red Village which is home to Mountain Jews and believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish village outside of Israel and the United States and the last surviving shtetl, where they can freely practice their religious beliefs and traditions.
Besides the cultural ties between Azerbaijan and Israel, over the last few decades, these two countries have also developed strategic and economic relations that are mutually beneficial. Opening a tourism office in Israel will certainly further these relations. It is noteworthy that Azerbaijan has become an important tourism destination for Israelis with about 50,000 tourists per year before the pandemic, and we are already in close connection with our Israeli counterparts to advance our cooperation in this field.
Travel And Tour World: We all know that COVID-19 has devastated the global tourism industry. What are the strategies you have taken for a safe trip to your country?
Florian Sengstschmid: It is true that the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for the whole world, and the tourism industry suffered a great deal from the travel restrictions. The very first concern for all of us was the health and safety issue. In fact, Azerbaijan was actually one of the first destinations to introduce nationwide health, safety, and hygiene standards through our SAHMAN program (Sanitation and Hygiene Methods and Norms), which is designed for local industry players to improve hygiene and sanitation across accommodation, F&B and touristic transportation providers. Run jointly with PwC, which is leading the audit and certification process, the program aims at helping to guide a safe pathway for the industry. About 12,000 monitoring sessions have been held so far, and we are happy to see our partners becoming invested in making traveling to Azerbaijan safe.
Early on we prepared a four-phased recovery plan, beginning with closed borders and lockdown in phase one and returning to a “new normal” with international travel restrictions lifted in phase four. The Azerbaijani government was also very proactive in establishing an operational headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers to closely monitor the spread of COVID-19 and manage restrictions depending on the infection rates. Now, with the vaccines rolling out and the daily number of cases going down, the situation with the pandemic in the country is getting much better and we have a positive outlook on the future and are optimistic about the reopening of borders and welcoming tourists again.
Travel And Tour World: What are the marketing strategies Azerbaijan Tourism Board has taken for the development of MICE tourism?
Florian Sengstschmid: Having a successful record of organising sporting contests and cultural conferences from the mid-1990s on, Azerbaijan has made its name heard over the last few years within the business events industry as well. During these years, Baku has successfully hosted over 20 large-scale international events in addition to cultural and sports events with all the needs and expectations of event planners as well as delegates highly met. I also feel proud to say that as a result of the hard work done, we have won the bid to hold the 73rd International Astronautics Congress in 2023, which is expected to bring more than 5,000 delegates to Azerbaijan.
To achieve this, we reached a significantly high number of people through promotional literature, advertising and in-market sales events. We also organised Familiarization Tours and Site Inspections for both event planners and foreign media representatives, giving prospective clients first-hand experience of Azerbaijan in the pre-pandemic period. As for the current period, we have chosen to focus on the present conditions and direct our marketing and promotional activities to digital means for now. The Azerbaijan Convention Bureau operating under the ATB, has been participating at webinars, online meetings and discussions to deliver our message that we are taking every necessary step to make sure that we will be able to host business events under the new conditions brought by the pandemic. Clearly, these conditions include meeting health and safety needs as well as having the necessary tools and mediums to host hybrid events and developing unique propositions and solutions for event planners and delegates alike.
Travel And Tour World: What is your international target market in the post COVID-19 time?
Florian Sengstschmid: Certainly, with the help of vaccines, the global situation with the pandemic will improve gradually, but we understand that this year will be full of challenges – it will be a year of transition. Therefore, our plan is to gradually resume global marketing and communications once international travel restrictions are eased and people are free to travel again. Much focus will be given to developing domestic tourism and providing the best travel experiences to local residents since a lot of us are yet to discover many wonderful parts of Azerbaijan.
As ATB, we plan to attend several trade shows and open representative offices in new markets. Our aim is to expand our activities to new markets in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Western and Northern Europe as well. Undoubtedly, we will continue to use webinars and other digital tools until face-to-face communication and destination promotion at international trade shows and other events become possible again. Rest assured that Azerbaijan will emerge as a tourism destination on the global stage stronger than ever before and we will be ready to welcome visitors from all over the globe to our beautiful country.
Travel And Tour World: How are the convention bureaus, tourism board and Azerbaijan Hotel Association (AHA) working to boost tourism? How are the Azerbaijan Hotel Association (AHA) and Azerbaijan Tourism Board working closely to make the country a safe tourism hotspot? Tell us in detail.
Florian Sengstschmid: While Azerbaijan is a new tourism destination on the global market, over the last decade tourism has been developing here rapidly and contributing to the national economy, thanks to coordinated efforts by all relevant stakeholders. The role of the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau operating under the Azerbaijan Tourism Board in developing the MICE tourism sector in Azerbaijan has been immense, while the Azerbaijan Hotel Association successfully represents the hospitality industry of Azerbaijan locally and on international platforms, encouraging the implementation of international standards and sharing the best practices to achieve fair competitiveness and better service quality. It is worth mentioning that in partnership with ATB, AHA has recently started the National Star Classification of hotels based on the HotelStars Union Criteria of Hotel Classification Standards. This system allows hotels to position themselves clearly in the market, while helping customers to assess properties based on quality and amenities. It will certainly contribute to increasing the quality of services in hotels, as well as maintaining and improving the international competitiveness of Azerbaijan’s hotel industry. Our joint efforts contribute to promoting Azerbaijan internationally as an appealing, successful and developing tourism destination.
In addition to that, tourism industry players (hotels, tour operators, agents, tour guides, etc.) are in constant direct dialogue with ATB through tourism industry associations (Azerbaijan Hotel Association, Azerbaijan Tourist Guides Association and the Association of Travel Agencies of Azerbaijan), as well as by means of trainings and participation at international platforms. Through cooperative efforts, we aim to ensure synergy and coordination among the various stakeholders involved in the tourism industry.
Travel And Tour World: What are the major tourism destinations in the country that Azerbaijan Tourism Board is promoting at the Arabian Travel Market?
Florian Sengstschmid: ATM Dubai 2021 is ATB’s first physical, offline event since the start of the pandemic. Our main goal is to reconnect with international partners and colleagues face-to-face and share our strategy for moving forward. With the vaccination process under way, in-person communication becomes possible again and, hopefully, this will be the start of the global tourism industry’s return to the ‘new normal’.
In spite of being a relatively new tourism destination, with its incredible climatic and biodiversity, magnificent landscapes and abundant natural resources, amazing architecture, enticing activities and a wide variety of adventure experiences, Azerbaijan has many tourism offerings and experiences that attract tourists here. Azerbaijan is a unique country that has great tourism potential rooted in the culture, history, geography, traditions and people of Azerbaijan. Some of the opportunities that await a curious explorer here include rich historic and cultural heritage, including three UNESCO World Heritage sites, pristine nature and outdoor activities, health and wellness resorts and the magnificent fusion of flavours of Azerbaijani cuisine. Travelers can enjoy bustling Baku with its beautiful architecture, seaside boulevard, the narrow streets of the Old City and state-of-the-art malls and shopping centres, as well as Silk Road heritage and the UNESCO-listed Sheki Khan’s Palace in Sheki, placid lakes, outdoor activities and skiing facilities in Tufandag ski resort in Gabala, tea plantations, citrus gardens and wonderful waterfalls in Lankaran and much more. We are also consistently developing new sustainable tourism products and routes to provide a diverse range of activities and satisfy every type of traveller. Certainly, we are looking forward to soon welcoming guests looking to explore the rich cultural offering and tourism experiences of Azerbaijan.
The beginning of the revitalization process in the liberated territories of the Karabakh region has opened new horizons for the future of the country’s tourism industry development. ATB is endeavouring to develop Karabakh into a globally competitive, sustainable and attractive tourism destination with state-of-the-art facilities and tourism infrastructure.
Travel And Tour World: What are the tourism trends the country is now promoting?
Florian Sengstschmid: The pandemic has prompted a shift in the travel paradigm – travel may never be the same again, but different doesn’t mean worse and we can expect it to be healthier, less crowded, more sustainable. People are now seeking out safe, healthy and authentic travel with experiential and transformative experiences with genuine cultural immersion. Travelers will look for destinations with good governance and health systems, prioritizing responsible, eco-friendly, socially conscious tourism.
Considering these changes in behavioural patterns, Azerbaijan as a tourism destination is endeavouring to make sure that the local industry adapts and provides the best travel experiences in the era of “new normal” to welcome more visitors to our beautiful country. We at the Azerbaijan Tourism Board always strive to reinforce the unique features of Azerbaijan and support them through various projects and initiatives, ranging from designing and producing eco-friendly local souvenirs to developing unique heritage routes to niche tourism products that promote eco-tourism opportunities. Khinalig, an isolated village that is set amid the most breathtaking mountain landscapes, would be a great example of this, as all our activities here are designed to preserve the unique features of this beautiful village. We have also started renovation and restoration work in Basgal – an authentic mountain village which is also known as the home of Azerbaijani “kelaghayi” (a traditional headscarf for women), making this a place where tourists can soak up the spirit of the Silk Road. Our main aim here is to preserve the authentic spirit of these places and contribute to local small businesses and community development through tourism.
For the post-pandemic period, ATB is focusing on developing sustainable, eco-friendly, authentic tourism products and activities – future visitors will be able to go hiking along newly developed and marked hiking trails in the Greater Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus mountains, try a wide variety of delicious Azerbaijani cuisine dishes and get first-hand experience of farming and cooking within the Slow Food Travel concept, enjoy pristine nature and outdoor activities away from crowded places, visit new birdwatching spots all across the country and stay at guesthouses and homestays to experience the authentic hospitality of the Azerbaijani people.
The ongoing vaccination process gives hope that soon the international travel restrictions will be lifted and people will be eager to travel again. Rest assured that Azerbaijan will still be here offering unforgettable experiences and opportunities to take another look at this beautiful country.
Travel And Tour World: In April 2021, a ceremony was held for the Mud Volcanoes Tourism Complex in Gobustan village, Absheron district. What are the plans for the promotion of these volcanic regions?
Florian Sengstschmid: The moonlike landscape of bubbling mud volcanoes is a unique feature of our country – Azerbaijan is home to about half of the world’s discovered mud volcanoes and around 400 of them are accessible in the Gobustan area. After assessing the tourism potential of this area, it was decided to establish a Tourism Complex here. The foundation of the Mud Volcanoes Tourism Complex in Gobustan was laid recently by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. We are optimistic that the construction of the complex will be finished and put into operation until the summer of next year. It is also envisaged to create the necessary infrastructure around the complex to provide the best experience for the visitors to come. Currently, a 20 km road is under construction to ensure proper access to the volcanoes in the area from the UNESCO-listed Gobustan Reserve, as well as facilitate the creation of the Baku-Gobustan-Mud Volcanoes tourism cluster. Along with providing visitors with an immersive experience just 1.5 hour away from Baku, this place will be a perfect destination for glamping and star gazing – amazing activities away in nature.