Mass tourism, alternative tourism, or both: Azerbaijan looks to make a choice

Society Materials 30 August 2017 13:10 (UTC +04:00)
For the last several years Azerbaijan has made good progress in enhancing its tourism industry.
Mass tourism, alternative tourism, or both: Azerbaijan looks to make a choice

Baku, Azerbaijan, Aug. 30

By Azer Ahmadbayli – Trend:

For the last several years Azerbaijan has made good progress in enhancing its tourism industry.

This is what Tourism & Travel (T&T) Competitive Report 2017 says about it: “Azerbaijan (ranks 71st from 136 countries) is one of the most improved economies this year, rising 13 spots in the global rankings. Azerbaijan’s liberalization of its visa regime has led to an improvement in the nation’s openness. At the same time the country has made efforts to enhance its natural and cultural resources by increasing the total size of protected areas and actively promoting its oral and intangible cultural expressions. Azerbaijan has become a cheaper destination thanks to a lowering of hotel prices, and exchange rate fluctuations. Azerbaijan’s relatively safe environment, flexible labour market and positive health conditions contribute to its growing attractiveness as a tourist destination”.

Here are basic (latest , from 2015) data regarding Azerbaijan tourism industry: international tourist arrivals accounted for more than 1.92 million, international tourism inbound receipts - $2.31 billion, average receipts per arrival – around $1200, T&T industry GDP - $1.5 billion (2.8% of total GDP), T&T industry employment – more than 118,000 jobs.

If we trace back the history of the tourist boom in Turkey, which has begun about thirty years ago, we can find that in 1983 the number of tourist arrivals made only 1.62 million.

Fast forward thirty years, and we observe a radically different picture. According to the same T&T Competitive Report 2017, international tourist arrivals accounted for almost 39.5 million, international tourism inbound receipts amounted to more than $26.6 billion, average receipts per arrival was $674.2, T&T industry GDP made nearly $35.9 billion, which is 5% of total GDP, and T&T industry employment formed almost 600,000 jobs in Turkey.

Mass tourist boom in Turkey, as we know it today, was initiated after 1982, when the Tourism Encouragement Law was enacted. In 1985, another document adopted by the Government - Free Zones Law - allowed the state-owned lands (particularly at Mediterranean littoral regions considered as tourist development zones) and building plots to be leased to private local and foreign investors for 49 years , granting them a number of strong exceptions and incentives such as lower land rents, corporate tax exemption i.e. customs, export taxes etc., lower utility rates, permission to foreign personnel up to 20% of total work force, etc.

From there on, supported by the state-granted credits and FDIs, private companies commenced building of large-scale tourism complexes, smaller hotels, roads, airports and other associated infrastructure that eventually resulted in rapid flourishing of tourism.

In Turkey the priority was, intentionally or not, first given to the development and promotion of mass tourism, which implied package tours for large groups of tourists with the so-called 3S (sea-sand-sun) type of recreation activities. It required continuous growth of bed capacity in the littoral regions. The main purpose was to increase international tourist arrivals as it was bringing good and quick return and creating new jobs.

Also, great attention was paid to vocational training and education in the field of tourism and related activities in order to withstand mass tourist inflow at the customers’ acceptable level. As a result of that policy, lion’s share of tourists spent their holidays on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts.

Only at the end of 1990’s, focus began gradually to shift to alternative forms of tourism based on natural, archeological, cultural and historical heritage resources of Turkey.

There is no evidence of mass tourism in Azerbaijan though there is a good potential: we have a coastline of 250 km from the capital city of Baku to northern frontiers with Russia and the same distance to the southern border with Iran.

The same distance of around 500 km covers main Turkish Mediterranean recreation zones with the world famous names – from Marmaris to Alania including Belek, Kemer and Turkey’s main tourism hub - Antalya resort.

By the way, 30 years ago, when Turks just came to an idea to seriously enhance the country’s tourist industry, the Mediterranean littoral was as empty as Caspian is now.

Azerbaijan’s most reliable tourists, and closest neighbors, are Iranians and Russians, who are, for the most part, unpretentious customers.

Now the main question: is it practically reasonable to arrange mass tourism in Azerbaijan?

The government, together with Azerbaijan tourism authorities are working to determine further plans on the development of tourism industry in the country, and this question is for them – whether to pick developing the Caspian coastal zone for mass tourism development, or keep improving quality of alternative destinations available today. Or, maybe, manage to do both?

There is some kind of confrontation between qualitative advantages of alternative tourism and quantitative objectives of mass tourism. Each of the two approaches has its relative strengths and weaknesses.

Mass tourism, for instance, can generate quick currency flow and make a substantial profit for a country, but it may cause some environmental and social issues. On the other hand, alternative tourism develops at a relatively slower pace. Mass tourism is seasonal (remember 3S, from June to late September in case of Azerbaijan), whereas alternative tourism activities have no seasonal limitation.

Anyway, whatever our further plans are, there are critical factors for success of any tourist destination, without which the development of tourism industry is at the risk of being waned. These are: safe political and public environment, continuous tourist satisfaction assessment with careful analysis of the information in order to improve quality of products and services, availability of well-trained personnel, relatively acceptable prices, continuous quality control, sophisticated infrastructure, hospitality of host country etc.

Good planning and hard efforts are required to make tourists coming to Azerbaijan keep enjoyable reminiscences about the days spent here. This positive recollection of past events is called “tourist experience”. We should raise this experience to the high level possible.

Now put yourself in the place of anyone from any country, who is already open for new tourist destinations: “What are we going to see this year? May be Prague once again, or Greek Rodos…. Hold on, I have heard very good things about Azerbaijan from my friends, whom I trust. They (Azerbaijanis) have climate conditions for any taste, good accommodation, outstanding service, relatively low prices, natural and cultural objects worthy to be visited, and hospitality of local people. Oh yes, and people say the food there is amazing. Why not go there?

It is quite believable that the figures shown above in the T&T Report can be much higher.