The tourism sector is developing rapidly in Azerbaijan, which has a rich cultural and historical heritage and favorable natural conditions. In recent years, the consistent and purposeful measures taken at the state level towards turning tourism into a leading sector of the economy, and the creation of the new directions with the liberation of lands from occupation have shown their positive effects on the development of tourism. At the same time, the global processes currently taking place in the world present travelers with a number of choices regarding trips.

In an interview with Report, Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Zurab Pololikashvili, spoke about the impact of the processes taking place in the world on tourism, the development prospects of this field in the post-pandemic period, and evaluated the current situation of global and Azerbaijani tourism.

– How do you assess the current state of tourism in the world? Is it possible to return to the pre-pandemic situation?

– International tourist arrivals reached 80% of pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2023 (-20% compared to the same quarter of 2019) boosted by strong results in Europe and the Middle East, compared to a 66% recovery level for the year 2022 overall.

International tourism grew 86% in Q1 2023 compared to the same period last year, showing continued strength at the start of the year. An estimated 235 million tourists traveled internationally in the first three months, more than double those in the same period of 2022.

The Middle East saw the strongest performance (+15%) and is the first world region to recover pre-pandemic numbers in a full quarter. Europe reached 90% of pre-pandemic levels in Q1 2023, supported by robust intra-regional demand. Africa and the Americas reached about 85% of 2019 levels in the first three months of 2023, while arrivals in Asia and the Pacific climbed to 54% of pre-pandemic levels. By subregion, Southern Mediterranean Europe (+1%) and North Africa (+4%) both recovered 2019 numbers.

International tourism receipts recovered the USD 1 trillion mark in 2022, growing 50% in real terms compared to 2021, and reaching 64% of pre-pandemic levels.

Strong results are expected in the Northern Hemisphere summer season backed by robust pent-up demand, the sustained recovery of air connectivity, and the recent reopening of China and other major Asian markets and destinations.

The UNWTO Panel of Experts survey indicates that almost 70% of experts expect better performance in May-August 2023. Yet, most continue to believe international tourism will not return to 2019 levels until 2024 or later.

In response to the challenging economic environment, tourists are expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home this year.

– What steps should be taken to develop the tourism sector in Azerbaijan after the pandemic?

– As all the countries in the world, the tourism development in Azerbaijan has been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. UNWTO has shared various tools to assist Member States in their steps to minimize the effects of the pandemic and to continue the development of tourism. These include the UNWTO Tourism Data Dashboard, the World Tourism Barometer, publications dedicated to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and others.

Recommended steps are to ensure the application of necessary health and safety measures, continue investing in infrastructure, including transportation, accommodation, and tourist facilities, expand and diversify tourism attractions, with special attention to rural tourism, encourage further private sector investments in the tourism industry and further develop and improve tourism education and training processes.

We encourage and invite all our member states to ensure sustainable and responsible development of tourism and are ready to support them in the steps they take.

– How do you evaluate the development of the tourism sector in Azerbaijan?

– Azerbaijan has been making efforts to develop its tourism sector in recent years. The country aimed to diversify its economy by promoting tourism as a key industry. This involved investments in infrastructure, promotion of cultural heritage, and marketing campaigns, including hosting various global and international events and initiatives. Azerbaijan Tourism Strategy 2023-2026 presents a strategic and holistic framework to lead the tourism development in the country for the next 4 years. It defines the strategic vision and guiding principles and envisions tourism development through the 9 pillar model. We encourage and stand ready to support our Member States in their actions to further develop their tourism sector, especially after global tourism was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

– Which projects do you think can be implemented to further develop tourism in Azerbaijan? Are you considering any cooperation with Azerbaijan in this regard?

– Azerbaijan is one of the active Members of our organization, which has supported and contributed to various initiatives of UNWTO, such as the Global Youth Tourism Summit, Best Tourism Villages, gastronomy and wine tourism events, and others. It is also an active participant in our statutory meetings and was recently selected as a member of the UNWTO Executive Council for 2023-2025.

We at UNWTO are ready to support our Member States in their steps to further develop sustainable and responsible tourism in their countries, including a special focus on rural tourism, tourism education, marketing, statistics, innovation, and education. Our organization has various tools to offer and we welcome the ideas and initiatives from our Members.

– What type of tourism (eco, leisure, health and so on) are tourists currently preferring? Is there a possibility of change in the future?

– Preferences for the type of tourism can vary based on factors such as individual interests, global trends, and external circumstances. Various regions as well as countries have different trends and flows in tourism types. Therefore it is difficult to highlight any certain type of tourism on a global level.

UNWTO promotes a sustainable and responsible approach to tourism for all the stakeholders of both domestic and international tourism. We strongly support the initiatives aimed at the development of rural and village tourism.

As a very innovative and ever-evolving sphere, tourism trends and preferences can change rapidly and expand. One of the main occurrences of last years is digital nomadism, which is a relatively new direction in tourism. One of the influences can be digital transformation: the integration of technology into the tourism experience may lead to more personalized and tech-enhanced travel, with augmented reality, virtual tours, and contactless services playing a larger role.

Tourist preferences can be fluid and subject to change based on a wide range of factors. The tourism sector and destinations that remain adaptable and responsive to evolving trends are likely to thrive in the future. Therefore, it’s essential for stakeholders in the tourism sector to continuously monitor market trends and adapt their offerings accordingly.

– How did the conflicts in the region affect the global tourism market? What measures should be taken to minimize the impact on the tourism sector?

– Firstly, our thoughts go to the people suffering and affected by conflicts in the region.

These conflicts present a big challenge to international tourism: they increase uncertainty and safety concerns, impact the infrastructure, economy, and reputation, and affect transportation and travel processes, not just in the countries directly involved in the conflict, but also the neighboring ones. They undermine the sense of security and trust we depend on to recover after the impacts of the pandemic. Although the easing of travel restrictions is contributing to the normalization of travel, the existing or possible conflicts continue to pose a serious threat to the recovery.

UNWTO will continue to amplify tourism’s calls for peace and urge an immediate end to all hostilities. We believe regional collaboration and communication is vital to end the conflicts. Stable and peaceful conditions are essential for tourism to thrive.

Tourism has a unique power to help build trust back, promote dialogue and understanding across borders, and provide opportunities.

– Do you think the liberation of Karabakh from occupation will lead to a revival of Azerbaijan’s tourism market?