As the ‘Country in Focus’ at the South Asia Travel and Tourism Exchange 2019 (SATTE 2019) held this month Times of India’s (TOI) Swati Mathur caught up with the chief executive officer of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, Florian Sengstschmid, to chat about why Azerbaijan should be on your countries-to-visit list the next time you plan your holiday. AZERTAC presents the full text of the interview.
Why is Azerbaijan keen to market itself as a tourist destination in India?
For many decades, the Azerbaijan economy was built only on oil and gas. In recent year, tourism, apart from the energy sector, has been an important sector to build on. Over 2017-18, we saw an increase in the number of Indian travelers coming to Azerbaijan. In 2018 alone, we had 40,00 Indian guests, an increase of 175% in comparison to the year before. Even though that may not sound like a big number in the context of what the market has to offer, for Azerbaijan, India is a country where there is interest as well as a growth potential.
India is one of the six markets where we have opened representative offices this year. On the Azerbaijan tourism board and through our media partners, we are analyzing the Indian market to see what kind of tourism opportunities people are for in Azerbaijan. We have also take a new approach to building the brand through a recently launched ‘Take another Look’ campaign to show the deeper side of experiences available in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan offers tourists an opportunity to discover a new destination and at the same time, it is within reach, both in terms of distance as well as costs. In Azerbaijan, you can enjoy super adorable luxury. I personally love India, but it is not as cheap as one would say it is. In contrast, the value in Azerbaijan you get with the Indian rupee is very high.
The experiences in Azerbaijan are varied. From all the modern amenities in Baku, where you have a great night life, beautiful restaurants, shopping streets, malls, the promenade and the shore of the Caspian Sea, you also have a vast expanse of unchartered rural territories just two hours outside of Baku. In the South, you have the desert, the mud volcanoes, gazelles, national parks and the wild life. And also the crude oil spas in the village of Naftalan. The combination of nine climate zone in this very small territory makes the tourism experience in Azerbaijan extremely reachable, accessible and varied.
Also, Azerbaijan is extremely safe for solo women travelers. It is a very open minded culture.
How easy is it to travel to Azerbaijan?
For the last one year, Indian tourists visiting Azerbaijan are eligible for e-visas. The application process is simple and can be made online. An Azerbaijan visa is issued in three hours. You get a print of your PDF and you are ready to travel.
At present, people travel to Baku through GCC. The exciting news is that there will soon be direct flight connectivity between Delhi and Baku. The modalities are being worked out right now, but we are hopeful it will be more than once a week. A formal announcement will be made in February and Azerbaijani airlines will start flying from the next month, non-stop Delhi-Baku. You should be able to reach Baku in just four-and-a-half-hours. Indian carriers are also currently assessing the market and I hope flight connectivity will help us diversify our products for the Indian markets.
What are your top recommendations to a first time traveler to Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan is a country of unrevealed curiosities for the World. From mud volcanoes in the South, to the oil spas in Naftalan village, which is only two hours from Baku, the experience is definitely off the beaten track. Nature is another important element to enjoy. Azerbaijan has been not been receiving tourists for too long. So what you see there of nature is untouched; in the valleys, pastures and on the mountains, the human intervention is minimal, in comparison with Europe, where the experience is more curated. In Azerbaijan, you are in the discovery mode. And the best part — the table is always full of fantastic food.
Azerbaijan and India have a lot of shared culture and values. There is, for instance, the Indian Azerbaijani heritage tour—Sanskrit inscriptions in Ateshgah, the UNESCO heritage sites, the Haidar Ali museum, wine tours, and visits to handicraft villages like Lahic, where you will find copper, silk crafts.
Even within Baku, the national capital, the walled city gives you a sense of history, old places and narrow streets, while right outside you have the eclectic architecture, Al Hadid, and a lot of modern. From international five-star brand hotels to the local bed and breakfast, it’s all packed in, in Azerbaijan.
Who is your key target audience?
Our tourism opportunities are essentially divided into four or five categories spanning individual travelers, young male and female groups, families of all ages, and celebrations — weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. We also have packages for corporate or MICE events.
Azerbaijan is now also looking to build a film policy document to encourage and support the Indian film industry to come there.