The Azerbaijani government has launched regular tourist bus trips to Shusha and Aghdam, two cities in Karabakh reclaimed as a result of the 2020 war against Armenia. The trips, which began on January 24, mark the first opportunity for Azerbaijani civilians to visit the region since the start of the first war between the two countries in the early 1990s.
Plans for the trips were announced by the State Automobile Transport Service at a press briefing on January 18. They are intended only for Azerbaijani citizens and will run on five different routes: Baku-Shusha, Baku-Aghdam, Ahmadbayli (a village in the Fuzuli region)-Shusha, Barda-Aghdam, and – when passenger flights commence – from the new Fuzuli airport to Shusha. The Ahmadbayli-Shusha route will run four times a week, the others twice a week.
The tickets, sold online at the website yolumuzqarabaga.az (“Our way is to Karabakh”), cost a maximum of 10.4 manats (about $6) for the Baku-Shusha route. Various categories of people affected by the war, including veterans and families of soldiers killed in the war, can travel for free.
Tickets are sold only for same-day return, as overnight stays are not allowed.
Azerbaijani media heavily covered the launch of the tours, which left early in the morning from Baku’s central bus station. Anar Rzayev, chief of the State Automobile Transport Service, told media that the trip to Aghdam would be six hours each way and to Shusha, six and a half hours. Visitors would have two and a half hours to see the sights before having to come back. The buses were accompanied by police escort.
One restriction on the trips that led to some discontent was that people will only be able to travel once per year per route, as Rzayev explained in a January 18 briefing. Following some negative social media reaction the Ministry of Digital Development and Transportation (which includes the State Automobile Transport Service) explained that the limit was imposed due to expectations of “huge demand” for the trips. “After real demand passes the peak and certain evaluations are conducted, the restriction will be lifted,” the ministry said.
But to many, the restriction smacked of a government monopoly.
Gubad Ibadoglu, the chairman of the opposition Democracy and Welfare Party, wrote on Facebook that if demand is so high, then the trips should run more frequently than twice a week. “Was Karabakh liberated so that the ruling family and their partners will make it into a special zone, abuse the state budget via closed tenders, let in [to Karabakh] only those they want, but not allow free commerce, movement, and activities there?” he asked.
Others welcomed the news.
Karim Karimli, a Shusha native and advocate for displaced Azerbaijanis, told local news outlet Sharg that he “highly appreciates” the opening of bus routes to his hometown. “Before you could go to Shusha only with a special invitation. Now a lot of people will be able to see Shusha. The most important part is that the ticket prices fit people’s budget. Recently we see how people are suffering financial hardships. Nothing should get in the way of people’s dreams,” Karimli said.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.