Azerbaijan has launched multi-day tourist trips to the key Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shusha, which was retaken from Armenian forces in 2020 and now bears the status of "cultural capital" for the Azerbaijani people.
There are also plans to start resettling the town later this year.
The two- and three-day trips will be organized once a week and may be offered more frequently in the future depending on demand, Azerbaijan's State Tourism Agency said in a statement.
"The project, being part of the 'Great Return' policy, aims to organize safe tourist trips to this cultural capital for citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan who have reached the age of 18, as well as to increase economic activity in the territories freed from occupation," the statement read.
Shusha was one of a few towns in Nagorno-Karabakh that was populated mainly by ethnic Azerbaijanis prior to the first armed conflict in 1988-94 (its population was about 15,000 according to the last Soviet census in 1989). It has long held special meaning for Azerbaijanis given its status as hometown of several of the country's most famous singers, poets and other artists, and its strategic location on a height overlooking the de facto Armenian Karabakhi capital of Stepanakert.
Its seizure by Azerbaijani forces on November 8, 2020, effectively marked the end of the Second Karabakh War, as Armenia capitulated the following day.
The new trips are the first to allow tourists to stay in Shusha overnight. Day trips to Shusha and Aghdam, another city formerly under occupation, launched last year.
The price is 215 manats (about $125) for 2-day tours and 370 manats (about $220) for 3-day tours, including bus travel, hotel accommodation, breakfast, and guide service. During the tours, visitors are able to see what's left of the war-ravaged town's historic sights.
When the trips were announced in early March, there was already discontent about the prices. "I am not a tourist in my own country, let alone a guest. I would never go [on such a tour] even if I could, and I will when I can without any permission and when my safety is the same as in other regions," one Facebook user commented.
Azerbaijan is planning to launch the resettlement of Shusha soon. The State Committee for Refugees and Displaced People's Affairs announced in January that 450 families will be resettled gradually from the second quarter of this year.
The process of resettling the territories retaken from Armenian forces in 2020 began last year. There are myriad infrastructure challenges and much of the area remains mined.
On March 17, the first 20 families moved back to Talysh village in Tartar district.
President Ilham Aliyev, visiting the village on the occasion, said that up to 180 more families would be resettled in the area.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.