Florian Sengstschmid: "Developing tourist destinations we rely on Azerbaijan's multiculturalism "
Azerbaijan has been growing its tourism economy for the last decade, reaching a record-breaking number of international travelers in 2019. Once the pandemic hit, the country’s tourism board realized they could use this time to emerge even stronger, thanks to Azerbaijan’s offerings that are equipped for a post-Covid-19 world. In 2018, Azerbaijan officially launched its first tourism campaign, after a decade of rising international traveler rates. In 2019, 3 million travelers visited the country, setting a new record for the destination. As Covid-19 permeated across the world in 2020, Azerbaijan was deeply affected, just like every other country. But due to its rapid response by government leaders and an integrated approach across the tourism industry, the country has coped comparatively well, Skift, a media company founded in 2012 that provides news, research, and marketing services for the travel industry, writes.
Florian Sengstschmid, CEO of Azerbaijan Tourism Board, told about how the DMO used the pandemic to develop a solid, sustainable tourism strategy and emerge as a safe destination, ready to welcome travelers who are looking for an offbeat location with uniquely authentic offerings.
-How is Azerbaijan handling the Covid-19 pandemic? What safety and hygiene policies are in place to make travelers feel secure?
-Early on, we created an integrated approach to bring together all tourism stakeholders in Azerbaijan to help alleviate hardship brought on by the pandemic. We were one of the first destinations to introduce nationwide health, safety, and hygiene standards through our SAHMAN program (which stands for Sanitation and Hygiene Methods and Norms and translates to “tidiness” in Azerbaijani), run jointly with PwC, which leads the audit and certification process. Approximately 12,000 monitoring sessions have been held currently, and it’s yielding positive results. The government was also very robust in establishing an operational headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers to closely monitor the spread of Covid-19 and administer a special quarantine regime for all residents of Azerbaijan, including restrictions that have been tightened and loosened depending on infection rates.
-How has this impacted travel and tourism in the country?
-Certainly, the pandemic fueled a growing demand for nature-related, eco-friendly, and outdoor activities. People are seeking transformative experiences that provide genuine cultural immersion. Due to borders being closed, there is an increasing demand for domestic travel among the citizens and residents of Azerbaijan. We have launched a domestic tourism campaign called “Macəra Yaxındadır” (“Adventure is Near”) to support the industry in these unprecedented times and encourage locals to discover the beauties Azerbaijan has to offer. The pandemic triggered us to reevaluate our activities. It helped us to refocus, rebuild, and develop a new strategic framework on moving forward into the new normal. We are preparing for the post-pandemic era with greater attention to health, hygiene and safety, and sustainable tourism. We’re especially emphasizing the development of nature and environmental tourism — such as marking hiking routes and creating infrastructure for birdwatching — as well as genuine, authentic experiences and activities, such as a slow food travel framework and rural guesthouse infrastructure improvement. Since Azerbaijan is not a mass tourism destination, it will be easier and safer for travelers to enjoy the country’s immersive experiences when the time is right.
-Can you talk about some of the strategies you used to build Azerbaijan’s tourism economy during the pandemic?
-We have been working on an overarching strategy that focuses on promoting domestic tourism, developing new products, and training and skill-building for those employed by the industry since the beginning of the pandemic. Our strategy has been to work with local experts and industry members to develop new routes and products around the country based on its existing strengths and natural resources, rather than create new things artificially. The pandemic allowed us to continue strengthening our relationships with the industry leaders through various associations. For example, we launched the National Hotel Star Classification in partnership with the Azerbaijan Hotel Association to improve the global competitiveness of Azerbaijan’s hotel industry.
Considering that there are myriad cultures, ethnicities, and faiths living in Azerbaijan, from the Jews of the Guba region, to the Russian Molokans of Ismayilli, and the ancient tribes of the Caucasus Mountains, we are eagerly working on developing Polish and Jewish heritage walking tours, with other similar tourism routes in the pipeline. We have also been working on Azerbaijan’s Silk Road heritage by researching and connecting the centuries-old crafts practiced in remote villages, such as carpet-making and coppersmithing, with medieval monuments and the fabulous fusion of ingredients in Azerbaijani cuisine. Azerbaijan is home to the Caucasus Mountains, Caspian Sea, subtropical zone in the south, and lakes, forests, and semi-deserts that offer amazing scenery and outdoor activities. Additionally, we’ve been developing communication efforts to educate travelers about Azerbaijan’s regional produce and rich harvests.
-Covid-19 has obviously presented many challenges to destinations. What opportunities did it offer?
-To prevent one of the main problems the industry is facing nowadays — a decrease of a skilled labor force — we established the Tourism Training and Certification Center in order to contribute to skill and capacity building and keep tourism industry workers engaged. The center provides education and skills development to tourism industry members, state officials, and communities within the local tourism industry to help keep companies afloat, protect jobs, and prepare qualified professionals. We’ve also created Azerbaijan 101, an online learning platform developed to help global tourism industry members discover Azerbaijan’s tourism potential.
We’ve embraced new digital technologies to engage with our global partners about Azerbaijan. As mentioned earlier, we are currently working on promoting Azerbaijan as a slow food travel destination. Several projects are also being implemented to improve the existing rural guesthouse infrastructure — our goal is to keep the authenticity of these guesthouses, simultaneously setting the standards for the accommodation and providing the best experience for the travelers to come.
-How does Azerbaijan’s offerings fit into the new demands that travelers have developed since the start of the pandemic?
-With its incredible biodiversity, landscapes, remote locations, and natural scenery and resources, Azerbaijan is a perfect fit for travelers who want to visit less crowded, off-the-beaten-path destinations where it’s easier to socially distance and maintain health protocols. Azerbaijan takes pride in being a tourism destination offering uniquely authentic local experiences, such as hiking between remote mountain villages through the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, dining al fresco in Baku’s traditional restaurants, visiting lemon and tea plantations in the south, and exploring the craft heritage of former Silk Road settlements, among many other activities. Obviously, safety will be paramount for future travelers.
-What’s the current tourism infrastructure of Azerbaijan? How will this develop over the next few years?
-Azerbaijan is home to the state-of-the-art Heydar Aliyev International Airport, which was given a five-star rating by Skytrax, as well as four smaller international airports. Railroads and highways along main transport corridors connect Azerbaijan’s regions and neighboring countries, and are constantly being upgraded. Additionally, there is now accommodation to suit all types of tourists and budgets, from global hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton, and Four Seasons, to small boutique hotels, hostels, guest houses, and spas and wellness resorts. New properties from The Ritz-Carlton and IHG are in development as well. Two more international airports are expected to be built in the Karabakh region, and the interregional connectivity is constantly being developed. The number of, as well as the quality of, tourism activities and amenities continues to grow as well. For example, the Mud Volcano Visitor Center, just over an hour away from Baku, is currently in development. It’s surrounded by a moonlike landscape, which will be ideal for glamping and star gazing.
-How will Azerbaijan Tourism Board market the destination in 2021 and beyond?
-We plan to resume global marketing and communications once international travel restrictions are eased. We will also attend several trade shows and open representative offices in new markets, including Turkey and the DACH region. We look forward to expanding our activities to new markets in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Western and Northern Europe as well. Our plan is to continue to use webinars and other digital tools until face-to-face communication and destination promotion at trade shows, travel exhibitions, and roadshow campaigns become possible again. We want Azerbaijan to emerge as a tourism destination on the global stage stronger than ever before.