Tourism has become a strategic pilar of Uzbekistan’s national economy. This Central Asian country welcomed in 2016 2.1 million visitors and before the pandemic, in 2019, 6.7 million.
2020 was a disastrous year, as anywhere in the world: 1.5 million tourists visited the country.
Travel Tomorrow sat down with Aziz Abdukhakimov, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Tourism and Sports, to discuss what tourism will looked like in Uzbekistan this year and what are the perspectives for 2022.
What impact had the pandemic on Uzbekistan’s tourism sector?
As with most countries in the world, the pandemic and the strict quarantine measures taken in connection with it, have negatively affected various sectors of the economy. It is worth noting that the tourism industry was one of the first industries to feel the impact of Covid-19. The reduction in the flow of foreign tourists arriving in Uzbekistan with the complete suspension of tourism naturally led to a sharp reduction in the volume of exports of tourist services. So, in 2020, about 1.5 million tourists came to the country, which is no more than 23 per cent of last year’s figure of 6.7 million. Exports of tourism services amounted to US$260 million, which is less than 20 per cent of last year’s figure of US$1.313 billion.
What measures were taken to restore tourist flow and attract tourists in 2021?
In order to mitigate the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and restore the tourist flow in the post-pandemic period, the country has adopted a set of measures to support the tourism business by further developing and restoring domestic and inbound tourism. A number of benefits and preferences have been provided for the tourism sector by presidential and government decrees.
The government is paying special attention to attracting new foreign air carriers in order to expand the geography of international flights from Europe, Russia and the CIS countries, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including China, South Korea, Japan and India. Also, work continues to improve the material and technical bases of the tourism industry and to develop related infrastructure. As a result of the measures taken to support tourism, even despite the pandemic, 136 hotels were built in 2020, with a total room stock of 6385 rooms. We now have a total of 1308 hotels. At the same time, 478 family guesthouses were opened, for a total of 1364 guesthouses altogether.
The programme ‘Travel Around Uzbekistan’ was also introduced with the aim of developing domestic tourism in Uzbekistan by encouraging the general population to travel and take excursions. This programme has already proven its high efficiency in generating mass domestic tourism; at the end of 2019, the volume of domestic Uzbek tourist trips had already increased 3.2 times compared to 2015. The programme significantly stimulated the development of tourist services and the production of goods for travellers, and also improved the level of seasonal occupancy of hotels throughout the country. In order to promote the tourism potential of Uzbekistan during the pandemic, virtual excursions were developed for 50 sightseeing spots and offered on the sites Uzbekistan.travel and Uzbekistan360.uz. Work continues on the creation of virtual tours to other attractions.
One of the priority areas in the tourism sector for the next few years is the creation of large tourist zones and all-season resorts, including in Bostanlyk district in the Tashkent region, in the Zaamin district of Jizzakh region, in the Namangan and Surkhandarya regions. There are also plans in place to create a modern complex for recreational, beach and aquatic tourism around the Aydar-Arnasay Lakes.
Along with the support for domestic tourism that has been implemented, have any wider lessons been learned from this new reality?
Of course, the situation with the pandemic has determined new approaches and solutions for the sector. For example, to ensure the safety and health of tourists, we launched the ‘Uzbekistan. Safetravel Guaranteed’ programme of sanitary and epidemiological security. All safety standards have been approved by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
The standards include the best international guidelines for the provision of safe services to tourists in order to ensure the safety of their health during their stay. As for the expansion of geography, in 2022, based on the epidemiological situation around the world, there are plans to add flights specifically to cater to pilgrimage tourism. These include 1500 flights from Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Iran and India, 240 flights from Israel, the USA, France and Russia, and 200 flights from Japan, India, Korea, China, Thailand and Buryatia. In 2021, we increased the number of flights to 18 per week from Turkey, quadruple the number from Indonesia, triple the number from Malaysia, and open connections with five new destinations in the Middle East.
At present, citizens of 86 nations can come to Uzbekistan without a visa, and work in this direction will continue in the coming year. The availability of transport is key in this, so from this year, we will reduce prices for aviation fuel and air tickets, launch additional railway routes from the Fergana Valley regions to the rest of the country, as well as continuing to improve highways and roadside infrastructure from Khonobod in the Andijan region to Termez in Surkhandarya and Moynaq in Karakalpakstan. Standardised service areas and service points are also being introduced along highways.
In previous years, in addition to traditional cultural and historical tourism, special attention was paid to promoting themed tourism around pilgrimages, gastronomy, youth, events, winter sports and eco-tourism. Which of these areas might be especially in demand in the context of the post-pandemic trend towards ‘tourism with social distance’?
First of all, I would like to highlight pilgrimage and medical tourism. There is huge untapped potential for these in Uzbekistan. Consequently, in the coming years, special attention will be paid to developing these two types of tourism. Together with the phased resumption of regular and charter air travel with the countries of Southeast Asia, the Middle East and a number of other countries with high potential for tourism, in 2022 we aim to attract more than 700,000 pilgrimage tourists to Uzbekistan. Also this year, systematic work with target markets will continue for attracting international tourists around culture and history, extreme, mountain, medical, agro, ethno, gastronomic, rural tourism, etc. Priority markets include Europe, Russia and the CIS countries, the Middle East, and Asia, including Southeast Asia, China, South Korea, Japan and India.
Are there plans to develop other tourism destinations? Some experts recommend moving away from the mass tourism model (particularly due to risks of environmental pollution, damage to monuments, overcrowding, safety issues, and low profitability of budget travel packages), and instead recommend developing conditions and iinfrastructure for small-group tourists that will stay longer and spend more.
As I have already noted, Uzbekistan has a huge untapped potential across the tourism sector. Focusing on domestic tourism and the implementation of the State Program will give a significant result in overcoming the current crisis, with the gradual involvement of foreign tourists and an increase in the tourist flow to the country. At the moment, the Ministry of Tourism is actively working on improving the existing tourism infrastructure in the country, where, in order to attract new tourists, it is necessary to create new destinations and introduce new tourism products and services. In terms of solvency, it is very important to develop luxury tourism products, which requires improving the existing infrastructure, as well as the construction of modern, new tourist facilities with latest technologies.
At the moment, most visitors’ main requirement is a customized vacation, including specific hotel rooms, special types of car hire, tickets for events, reservations in popular restaurants, pre-orders for Spa & Beauty treatments, etc. Tourists prioritise first-class flights, and the quality and variety of service levels. Private transfers on small planes and helicopters are very popular. Travellers increasingly prefer unique accommodation rather than traditional hotels. This can range from luxury hotels to a treehouse, monasteries, glass bubbles or a yurt in the middle of the steppe.
Also, modern tourists often plan travel around events, like sports competitions, cultural festivals and carnivals, concerts, major exhibitions, or recently opened landmarks. Also, it can be dinner parties with the participation of celebrities, writers, politicians, scientists. In the direction of luxury tourism, Uzbekistan can offer helicopter tours around the country. For example, flights over the Aral Sea, over the Tashkent region, places of outstanding and natural beauty. We also need to offer special tour packages for ‘all inclusive’ resorts, such as the Bukhara Resort Oasis & Spa, Konigil tourist village and Heaven’s Garden Resort & Spa.
Also, we shall promote hunting tours in Bukhara, Navoi, Khorezm regions and the Republic of Karakalpakstan. Hunting and falconry tours is the most demanded type of tourism among luxury tourists.
Today, tourists are increasingly requesting activities related to nature and conservation. Based on this, we have accelerated implementation of infrastructure projects aimed at smoothing tourist flows and creating conditions for year round recreation. These places incorporate environmental measures for sustainable tourism, such as the preservation of natural heritage, respect for nature reserves and parks and will be further opened for tourists in compliance with all environmental standards.