Baku Days: The Azerbaijan Tourism Fair – The Lights are on…

President Iham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban at the 2011 Tourism Fair - Official photo AITF Daily News

I finally made it to the 2011 Azerbaijan Travel and Tourist Fair! Yes, after having been refused entrance the previous day by what the security guard described as “force-majeure” or an act of God, I had a good look around at an event described by the organisers as the largest Tourism event in the Caucasus. By the way, the “act of God” was President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban who were viewing the event at the time I wanted to access the venue. Anyway, I digress.

The venue for the show was the Baku Expo centre, a purpose built exhibition hall the size and shape of a modern airport terminal, some nine-kilometers out of the city.

The lunchtime rush to gain entry to the 2011 Tourism Fair

The first two days were given over to trade professionals and the final day, to the general public. It was not that general however. I was certainly the only non-Azeri visitor present amongst perhaps three or four-dozen visitors when I was looking around. The hall was pretty big as these things go, with perhaps two-hundred stalls but the maybe a quarter of the booths were either unstaffed or in the process of being taken down. “Strange” I thought, “but then, Azerbaijan has a massive deficit on its tourism balance of payments”, so the more Azeris who travel abroad, the larger that debt becomes…

I chatted to the depressed-looking woman on the stall promoting Greece as a travel destination. She for one hadn’t had much interest in here wares. The man representing Northern Cyprus apologised that there were no direct flights to that holiday hot-spot from Azerbaijan. The stall from Dagestan, a region of Russia just to the North of Azerbaijan had already been packed away in boxes which was a shame, as I would really like to visit it. Most of the newspaper and periodical stalls were empty and even at the trade stands that were staffed, people seemed disinclined to engage me in conversation. One exception however was a lady representing the Duzdag resort in Nakhchivan, that strange piece of Azerbaijan that is separated from the rest of the country, surrounded by Iran, Turkey and Armenia.

The five-star Duzdag hotel a few kilometers outside of Nakhchivan city, also runs one of those odd Eastern-European spas that treat illnesses and ailments with what to western eyes appear to be peculiar therapies. The most famous one in Azerbaijan is Naftalan, that uses crude oil to combat skin ailments… The Duzdag spa treats allergies and asthma and is located in a former salt-mine. I was and continue to be baffled by what they actually do there and their promotional video doesn’t actually give any clue. As I was intrigued by the concept, I suggested that I might write an illustrated article for AZ magazine and was delighted when she suggested that I visit as a guest of the hotel. That visit will do doubt become the subject of a future blog entry…

Lankaran Ladies between music performances at the fair

In addition to the trade stalls promoting countries outside Azerbaijan as tourist destinations, each of Azerbaijan’s regions were represented. Having visited the Lankaran region several times, I decided to have a chat with one of the representatives.

With the "Relax" ladiesLankaran is in the South of Azerbaijan, towards the Iranian border. The area is full of craggy mountains, beautiful oak forests and hot water springs. It is also home to the incredibly hospitable Talysh people, many of whom live to a great age. The lady was promoting “Relax”, one of the many resorts that are scattered along the mountain road to Lerik. Strangely, these resorts seem to be empty for most of the year. Yet another of Azerbaijan’s travel and tourism mysteries.

I had planned to stay perhaps two-hours at the event, being jostled by the hords who would throng the event but in the end, found only enough to sustain my interest for sixty-minutes.

The reason why so few people were in attendance was of course because the tourism business in Azerbaijan is incredibly tiny at the moment. Although Azerbaijan had 1.9 million visits from people outside its borders last year, most of these were oil workers and their families working in the country, business people from Iran and Turkey and people with strong links with Azerbaijan visiting their families. Those from Azerbaijan going abroad on holiday in 2010 was a mere 42, 691 [from a population of 8 million] whilst actual numbers of tourists visiting the country was only 17,009.

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Number of received and dispatched tourists-total, person 29382 40008 45605 56290 59607 59700
received 11592 16858 14472 12356 19288 17009 
dispatched 17790 23150 31133 43934 40319 42691

It seems to me that the encouragement of tourism in Azerbaijan depends more on the amount of disposable income average families have than the development of a high-profile but low-impact tourism fair. An additional factor to the resistance that Azerbaijan faces as an international tourism destination  is the difficulty and cost of obtaining a tourist visa. Many countries developing mass tourism provide no-cost  visas on entry for example Namibia, Thailand and Madagascar. Let us look forward to the day when this is possible in Azerbaijan.
If the event organisers would like more local people to attend next year, perhaps they can choose a venue more accessible to local people and encourage stall holders to remain in place the day after the professionals and VIPs have moved on… 

About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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3 Responses to Baku Days: The Azerbaijan Tourism Fair – The Lights are on…

  1. Pingback: Return From Indonesia, and a Note On Tourism « Aaron in Azerbaijan

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  3. Pingback: Baku Days: The Azerbaijan Tourism Fair – The Lights are on… | Azerbaijan Days « turkischland

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