Two steps backward, one step forward
According to the State Statistics Committee data, Azerbaijan, with its population of 9 million people, received about one million tourists last year.
5 million people visited Georgia during the same period, which is more than the population of the country.
Azerbaijan is ranked 84th and Georgia, 71st, in the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report. When speaking about Georgia’s economy, many Azerbaijanis shrug their shoulders graciously. Nevertheless, Georgia is more attractive to foreigners despite all those Eurovision, European Games and other events that, as our TV channels continuously harp on, were held to attract tourists from all over the world. Visa travel rules are named by many as the second reason for not coming after the exorbitant prices.
Something should be done
Azerbaijani President, Ilham Alyev, recently signed a decree on the simplification of the e-visa procedures and set up the ASAN Viza System. The decree was signed with the aim of streamline the visa application process for foreign citizens and stateless persons travelling to Azerbaijan, as well as to set up an electronic visa system. This will ensure the transparency and efficiency of the application via modern information technologies.
What do these novelties imply?
The ASAN Viza system will allow foreigners to obtain an electronic visa, pay a state duty for its issuance and get useful information from the ASAN agency. The visa will be issued within three working days.
That’s all fine and well, if only one forgets that some six years ago a foreigner could get a visa at the airport upon arrival in Azerbaijan. Issuing visas at the airport was also abolished by presidential decree. Since that time, foreigners have been obtaining visas in the Azerbaijani embassies in their countries.
Speaking at a news conference on June 1, Malena Mard, the Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, stated that the novelty “will boost the flow of tourists from EU countries to Azerbaijan.
Judging by the entire sequence of actions, it was a step forwards after several steps backward.
In April 2013, Azerbaijan introduced a mandatory registration regime for all visitors staying in the country for more than three days. A year and a half later, this term was increased to 10 days. If a guest and his/her host fail to register at the nearest post office, when leaving the country a tourist will have to pay a fine amounting 300-400 AZN. This registration procedure for foreigners had existed in the USSR, but most post-soviet countries have done away with it. Azerbaijan also did, though in April 2013 it reintroduced it.
Johan and Marine arrived in Azerbaijan in 2014 and stayed for just a week. However, when they were leaving, they had to pay 600 AZN (300 each) fine. “When we were at the embassy in Paris, we were given a leaflet saying, among other things, that we should register, says Marine. “We didn’t know that something important was written there, and we didn’t even bother read it. And it was at the border that we learnt that we should have register. So, we had to pay the fine.
Temo Kiguradze, a Georgian journalist, blogger and traveler, says: “I often meet the tourists from EU countries or the USA. I travel a lot myself, so I have many acquaintances there. Many of them just write and ask me for advice, e.g. where they can travel in the South Caucasus within a short period of time. When we sit and plan, it usually turns out that they spend 70% of time in Georgia and 30% in Armenia. When I tell them how interesting it is to travel across Azerbaijan, the typical response is, ‘It’s too complicated. Getting visas is costly and time-consuming, and it’s not worth it.’ Regrettably, in my opinion, it’s due to these obstacles in obtaining a visa that Azerbaijan is losing a great number of tourists.
Are these measures going to work?
Natik Jafarli, an economist, believes that in terms of its visa regime, Azerbaijan’s behavior is not typical for a developing country. “In fact, Azerbaijan is one of the most closed countries in the world when it comes to getting a visa, he says. “Unlike other developing countries, Azerbaijan has visa-free travel rules only with several CIS states.
At the same time, in the economist’s words, the country has not yet gotten rid of visa requirements for the USA, Western Europe, Iran and Turkey, the countries that have the highest potential for tourism. “There were speculations the visa requirements would be abolished for Turkey and Iran, but the situation remains the same, says Jafarli. “When compared to neighboring Georgia, it has visa free travel rules with over 100 countries, and it has set a record this year–2.5 million tourists have visited Georgia since the beginning of the year alone. In the economist’s opinion, the transfer of control to the ASAN over visa regulations is not likely to improve the situation.
Meanwhile, Abulfas Garayev, the Minister of Culture and Tourism in Azerbaijan, is full of optimism. In his words, in prior years, the ministry managed to attract foreign tourists’ attention, telling them about Azerbaijan and the country’s opportunities for tourism. According to Garayev, the ministry particularly focuses on developing the country’s tourism strategy for the coming decade, which is under consideration of the country’s Cabinet of Ministers.
In short, everything is going as planned.
- ASAN (The State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations Under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan) is a renowned body, well-loved by citizens, which is efficiently operating through a ‘single-window’ (one-stop shop) principle. The organization duplicates some functions of other agencies, but it is distinguished by its modern service and absence of corruption. Georgia, which is popular among Azerbaijani tourists, provides visa-free entry to the citizens of 108 countries. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has visa-free travel rules for only 9 countries – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.