Will pilgrims flee to Uzbekistan?
As Uzbekistan opens to the world, its many important religious sites can form the base of a tourism boom. As The Diplomat writes in the article Islamic Tourism Has Great Potential in Uzbekistan, the names of Imam Al-Bukhari, Imam At-Termezi, Imam Al-Maturudi, Baha-ud-din Naqshband Bukhari, Al-Zamakhshari are well-known across the Muslim world, from the area that is now modern Uzbekistan, where they were each born and buried, around Central Asia and beyond. Their mausoleums are now important potential destinations for tourism development in Uzbekistan. Tourism reform, in particular the development of ziyarah (Islamic pilgrimage) tourism, marks a remarkable new approach from the government of Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is at the crossroads of Central Asia. It was a major hub on the Great Silk Road, and possesses rich cultural, historical, and natural heritage. At present, as the government makes concerted efforts to open the country to the world, tourism has been identified as strategic sector in need of development.
CrescentRating, a group specializing in Muslim and halal tourism, estimates that by 2026 there will be 230 million halal tourists; the Pew Research Center has estimated that by 2050, nearly 30 percent of the world’s population will be Muslim. Considering the innate Islamic potential of Uzbekistan, pilgrimage tourism development holds great promise for the country.
Uzbekistan is not yet known around the world as a destination for pilgrimage tourism. In a 2017 survey organized by the Center of Business and Tourism Development (CBTD), only 2.2 percent of visitors in the several months long survey period said they wanted to join a pilgrimage when asked what aspects of sightseeing in Uzbekistan they were most interested in. Most of the tourism resources in Uzbekistan are concentrated on historical and cultural destinations, and a majority of respondents in the survey cited historical and cultural interests. These resources can be reoriented in support of the vast potential for pilgrimage tourism.
Crescent Rating ranked Uzbekistan as 29th in the world in its 2017 Global Muslim Travel Index. Uzbekistan fell behind Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in the rankings (Turkmenistan was not included among the 130 countries on the list).
Since 2017, tourism has become a strategic sector of the national economy, not the least because this sphere promotes the growth of Uzbekistan’s international prestige. This was underscored by a presidential decree pushing for intensified development of Uzbekistan’s tourism industry.
Special attention to the halal tourism supply chain began just two years ago and further attention to this aspect is necessary to attract more tourists from Muslim countries. Implementation of a halal certification, training on halal tourism, and building halal hotels are necessary steps toward that end.
The promotion of ziyarah tourism has featured in several bilateral agreements over the past two years between Uzbekistan and other Muslim countries. For example, agreements on the organization of special pilgrimage tours in Uzbekistan have been made with Pakistan and Turkey.
Realizing this particular development of tourism in Uzbekistan will take complicated institutional and legal steps. A draft action plan on the development and implementation of a system of voluntary certification of products and services, including “halal,” “kosher” and “vegan,” was submitted for approval to the Cabinet of Ministers in 2018.
This will require action from not only the State Committee for Tourism Development, but collaboration between the Ministries of Justice, Architecture, and Agriculture, as well as the Committee of Religious Affairs.
To date, the majority of tourists visiting Uzbekistan come from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Yet the Islamic world possesses enormous economic and investment potential. Working closely with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) can help increase the flow of tourists from Muslim-majority states. Uzbekistan could expand mutually beneficial trade and investment relations within the framework of the OIC. As the largest Muslim organization, the OIC can focus on further development of Uzbekistan’s religious tourism potential.
The promotion of specialized tours to important Islamic destinations in Uzbekistan will also help increase the overall flow of tourists. The country possesses unique destinations, especially for followers of the Hanafi school and Sufis. Pilgrimage tourists could see unique places in Samarkand such as Imam Al-Bukhari’s mausoleum, a Tomb of St. Daniel (St. Daniel has several attributed buried sites across Iraq, Iran, and, yes, Uzbekistan), the Rukhabad Mausoleum (the tomb of Sheikh Burhanuddin Sagardji, the spiritual mentor of Amir Timur), and the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis. There are already special tours available that visit these destinations and others, as they appeal not only to pilgrims but secular tourists as well.
Uzbekistan has not been a major global tourist destination, although it does not lack picturesque and important historical and religious sites. The country’s long-time lack of a unified tourism policy and strategy are urgent issues that have stymied tourism development. The government of Uzbekistan has made clear its intentions to now focus decisively on the multidirectional development of the country’s tourism sector. More than 50 legal norms (bylaws and laws) have been enacted in the tourism sphere under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and more work is underway.
It is high time for Uzbekistan to take its place among the nations of the world for its rich cultural, historical, and religious heritage. The government understands the importance of tourism to economic growth and national prestige and is moving forward decisively with special focus on the Islamic world, and promoting pilgrimage tourism. Whether you are religious or secular, the Great Silk Road beckons.