In recent years, tourism to Azerbaijan has blossomed, driven in significant part by visitors from the Middle East. But those visitors have often brought with them controversy, and now Baku is stepping up its efforts to attract more tourists from Europe and East Asia.
Azerbaijan is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world; in 2017 the World Travel & Tourism Council reported that Azerbaijan showed the highest growth globally in tourist spending. While the largest numbers of visitors come from neighboring Russia, Iran, Georgia, and Turkey, the largest increases have come from the Middle East. According to Azerbaijani government figures, from 2015 to 2017 Emirati visitors grew from roughly 2,000 to 102,000; Iraqis from 2,000 to 65,000; Saudis from 700 to 33,000.
This is in large part due to official targeting. In 2016, Azerbaijan began offering visas on arrival to citizens of several countries in the Middle East and Asia, including Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. The country also began promoting “halal tourism,” directing Muslim tourists to hotels and restaurants that follow Muslim practices.
Officials also promoted the country’s relative safety: “After the terror attacks and bloody events in Turkey, tourists who refused to go there started coming to Azerbaijan,” said Nahid Bagirov, head of the Azerbaijani Tourism Association, in an interview with AzVision.az.
Azerbaijan is a good mix of the familiar and new for Gulf tourists, said Rashad Guliyev, the founder of a local hospitality and consulting agency. “Azerbaijan is supposedly a Muslim country which means it’s easier for [Muslim tourists] to practice their religion while traveling, but it’s a secular, modern European country which offers a sense of freedom,” he said.
But the influx of tourists has created some cultural clashes. In July, a video of a Baku apartment rented to Kuwaiti tourists went viral on social media. In the video, the owners appear shocked upon returning to their apartment, which is strewn with watermelon rinds and trash, a mattress torn. On WhatsApp, Facebook and other social networks locals fumed against Arabs.
Many Azerbaijanis, proud of their secular society, are uncomfortable with visitors from the more pious countries of the Gulf. “The average Azerbaijani knows little about religion … [and] in a country where most of the population considers itself Muslim, a woman wearing a hijab causes anxiety and panic,” sociologist Sanubar Heydarova told JAM News.
Male Arab tourists have been associated with sex tourism, heightening resentment. This was exacerbated this summer when a documentary on state-run Iraqi television alleged – without evidence – that over 8,000 Arab tourists had become infected with HIV after visiting Azerbaijan. That, too, became a hot topic on social media. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Health quickly denied the allegation and referenced several years of health records.
The negative stereotypes of Arab tourists are unwarranted in many cases, some Azerbaijani hospitality workers argue. While there are some “nightmare occurrences […] there are more good tourists than bad, and discriminating against any tourist from a Gulf country doesn’t reflect the hospitality of the country,” said Orkhan, who manages several Airbnb apartments and a boutique hotel in Baku, and declined to share his family name.
On balance the increase in visitors from the Middle East has benefited Azerbaijan, Guliyev said. “The rising number of Arab tourists in Azerbaijan also means a flow of foreign capital into the country. Some of these tourists are wealthy businessmen, and they are looking for places to invest,” he said.
Azerbaijan recently adopted a new nation-branding slogan – “Take Another Look” – with the stated objective of doubling the number of tourists by 2023. The campaign, launched in November, is aimed particularly at tourists from other parts of the world, notably Europe, China, and Southeast Asia.
"With this one, we’re not trying to reduce the importance of our business with the Gulf countries," Guliyev said. "But we understand that each market requires different strategies, so but having more diversity of tourists would probably make all aspects of our tourism industry stronger.”
The choice of slogan has proven controversial, however. “Take Another Look sounds as if Azerbaijan is a country that one might not enjoy at first glance – and that it has to be closely examined before it can be appreciated,” the regional news site JAM News wrote.
“I appreciate that the public cares about the new branding so that they comment on it, and I understand that there are different opinions,” said Kanan Guluzade, a spokesman for the State Tourism Agency, in an interview with Eurasianet. The branding was developed by international brand consulting firm Landor Associates “and involved more than one hundred historians, scholars, marketing, art, and tourism professionals in the consultations,” Guluzade said.
Austin Clayton is a writer based in Baku.
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Austin Clayton is a writer based in Baku.