While rich in history, resources and tradition of welcoming visitors in the past, the countries of Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan have had to face geopolitical challenges that have greatly hindered the development of tourism in recent years.
Overcoming these challenges, including lifted economic sanctions and dispelling cultural misperceptions has helped drive travel. But with the easing of visa requirements as well as embarking on strategies to raise the profile and provide tools to encourage visitors within their borders, these three destinations are gaining major traction in becoming leading travel destinations for the region.
With the historic nuclear deal that has resulted in lifted sanctions on Iran, the country is benefiting from pent-up demand among travellers to visit the destination. In 2014, Iran welcomed more than five million visitors, up from just 1.6 million visitors ten year prior.
While obtaining visas for travel to Iran has been a challenge to visitors in the past, easing of visa restrictions has helped make the destination more accessible. While travel to Iran following the 1979 revolution still included many Europeans, most travel visas were only given to Asian Muslims travelling for pilgrimages and to visit significant religious sites. Today, however, Germany is Iran’s top source market, followed by other European countries, as well as visitors from the US and Asia.
'We are working on our infrastructure to welcome more visitors to Iran,' stated Mahdiyar Kokabzadeh, managing director, Yekta Safar Travel Agency. Heavy investment in hotel development is just part of a government plan worth $30 billion in the tourism sector. Accor has already entered the market with the opening of Ibis and Novotel properties in Tehran. In addition, Rotana Hotel Management announced its plans to open a property in Mashhad in 2017, with four additional properties to follow by 2018, including two in Tehran.
Top activities sought by visitors to Iran include visits to major historic landmarks, including 19 Unesco World Heritage Sites such as the Persian capital of Persepholis, Eram Garden in Shiraz and Tehran’s Golestan Palace. In addition, travellers are lured by Iran’s expanse of outdoor offerings that include desert exploration, mountain hiking and downhill skiing.
With a strong tourism infrastructure, nine climate zones, and home of five Unesco Heritage Sites including the famed walled city of Baku, Azerbaijan has been following the lead of other oil-rich nations by forging its way into the tourism sector.
In addition to the opening of a new terminal at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev airport in 2014, airlines such as flydubai, Qatar, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Georgian and Lufthansa are now serving the country in addition to Azerbaijan Airlines. Hotel investment has also been significant, with Hilton, Hyatt Sheraton, Kempinski, Marriott, Fairmont and Four Seasons represented in the capital of Baku.
With an eased visa process, including the implementation of an online visa application and visa on arrival available to citizens of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman Qatar and the UAE, Azerbaijan welcomed more than two million visitors in 2015.
Rashid Al Noori, Representative of the Office of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Azerbaijan explains, 'It has helped us to promote the destination by taking a priority in educating people about Azerbaijan.' Al Noori also explains that young people are encouraged to seek out careers in the tourism sector, and English is widely spoken in hotels and major tourist sites.
Recently, Azerbaijan has been educating potential visitors by hosting large-scale, high-profile events to garner worldwide exposure and awareness for the destination. In 2015, Baku was the site of the European Games and this June will be the site of a Formula 1 Grand Prix race. The event will take place on a street circuit, with the aim to showcase the beauty and architecture of the host city of Baku.
Beyond such renowned sites as Baku’s walled city and other historic sites, Al Noori explains that 'Azerbaijan is very clear about what it wants to do. The European Games was selected as a way to break the barrier of just coming to visit for the historic sites. We wanted to entice young visitors to experience the cafes, nightlife and vibrant restaurants.'
Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Georgia has always been a place for traders and commerce which has fed its long history as a popular travel spot with a diverse culture.
Following a period of negative headlines in the media which hurt tourism to the region, Georgia is positioned for a strong comeback among travellers. In 2010, Georgia received two million international visitors, expanding to nearly six million visitors in 2015, including one million visitors from Russia.
Georgia is easily accessible with liberal visa requirements and is currently served by 25 airlines. Considered one of the safest travel destinations in Europe and the world, most visitors are enticed by Georgia’s many historic and diverse cultural offerings, stunning landscapes, and outdoor adventure activities that include hiking, cycling and skiing. Positioning itself as the birthplace of wine, Georgia also attracts visitors with its vineyards and wine tours.
The capital of Tbilisi is particularly popular with millennial travellers seeking out the lively cultural scene set and its ‘Old Town,’ which features bustling restaurants, bars and art galleries, as well as sulphur bathhouses fed by natural hot springs.
'Today in Georgia you will experience a lot of diversity with small cafes and boutique restaurants, things that are done by young people for young people. In essence, the entire city and entire concept of the city is changing,' stated Tornike Zirakishvili, head of Convention and Exhibitions, Georgian National Tourism Administration. 'Young travellers visiting are more independent, so we provide them with online information, maps and other tools so that they can explore on their own.'
Recently, Georgia invested $100 million into its infrastructure, including upgrading the country’s roads as well as putting in modern double-decker trains to help visitors get from Tblisi to resort areas along the Black Sea. Service from Tblisi to Batumi, Kobuleti and Ureki will begin in July.
By Christine Hinz
Complement is key to UAE
IN 2015, the UAE welcomed more than 100 million air passengers with Emirates, Etihad and other global and Gulf carriers, offering an enormous opportunity to encourage travellers to explore the country.
“What makes the UAE so special is its connectivity to the world and the number of passengers that travel through the destination,” said Marwan Bin Jassim Al Sarkal, CEO, Shurooq, during a panel discussion that focused on the future of the UAE as a global travel hub during this year’s Arabian Travel Market.
Capitalising on this strength, tourism entities throughout the emirates have formed a complementary and collaborative strategy in their tourism product. A diversity of offerings ranging from beach, mountain and desert experiences, as well as city excursions offering museums, mosques and other cultural attractions within each emirate allows visitors to come away with a distinctive and well-rounded experience, the panel explained.
“Our strategy is to differentiate ourselves and to complement other emirates,” stated Sultan Al Mutawa Al Dhaheri, acting executive director, Tourism, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
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