In 2018, Azerbaijan officially launched its first tourism campaign, after a decade of rising international traveler rates. In 2019, 3 million travelers visited the country, setting a new record for the destination. As Covid-19 permeated across the world in 2020, Azerbaijan was deeply affected, just like every other country. But due to its rapid response by government leaders and an integrated approach across the tourism industry, the country has coped comparatively well.
SkiftX spoke with Florian Sengstschmid, CEO of Azerbaijan Tourism Board, about how the DMO used the pandemic to develop a solid, sustainable tourism strategy and emerge as a safe destination, ready to welcome travelers who are looking for an offbeat location with uniquely authentic offerings.
SkiftX: How is Azerbaijan handling the Covid-19 pandemic? What safety and hygiene policies are in place to make travelers feel secure?
Florian Sengstschmid: Early on, we created an integrated approach to bring together all tourism stakeholders in Azerbaijan to help alleviate hardship brought on by the pandemic. We were one of the first destinations to introduce nationwide health, safety, and hygiene standards through our SAHMAN program (which stands for Sanitation and Hygiene Methods and Norms and translates to “tidiness” in Azerbaijani), run jointly with PwC, which leads the audit and certification process. Approximately 12,000 monitoring sessions have been held currently, and it’s yielding positive results.
The government was also very robust in establishing an operational headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers to closely monitor the spread of Covid-19 and administer a special quarantine regime for all residents of Azerbaijan, including restrictions that have been tightened and loosened depending on infection rates.
SkiftX: How has this impacted travel and tourism in the country?
Sengstschmid: Certainly, the pandemic fueled a growing demand for nature-related, eco-friendly, and outdoor activities. People are seeking transformative experiences that provide genuine cultural immersion.
Due to borders being closed, there is an increasing demand for domestic travel among the citizens and residents of Azerbaijan. We have launched a domestic tourism campaign called “Macəra Yaxındadır” (“Adventure is Near”) to support the industry in these unprecedented times and encourage locals to discover the beauties Azerbaijan has to offer.
The pandemic triggered us to reevaluate our activities. It helped us to refocus, rebuild, and develop a new strategic framework on moving forward into the new normal. We are preparing for the post-pandemic era with greater attention to health, hygiene and safety, and sustainable tourism. We’re especially emphasizing the development of nature and environmental tourism — such as marking hiking routes and creating infrastructure for birdwatching — as well as genuine, authentic experiences and activities, such as a slow food travel framework and rural guesthouse infrastructure improvement.
Since Azerbaijan is not a mass tourism destination, it will be easier and safer for travelers to enjoy the country’s immersive experiences when the time is right.
SkiftX: Can you talk about some of the strategies you used to build Azerbaijan’s tourism economy during the pandemic?
Sengstschmid: We have been working on an overarching strategy that focuses on promoting domestic tourism, developing new products, and training and skill-building for those employed by the industry since the beginning of the pandemic.
Our strategy has been to work with local experts and industry members to develop new routes and products around the country based on its existing strengths and natural resources, rather than create new things artificially. The pandemic allowed us to continue strengthening our relationships with the industry leaders through various associations. For example, we launched the National Hotel Star Classification in partnership with the Azerbaijan Hotel Association to improve the global competitiveness of Azerbaijan’s hotel industry.
This is an excerpt from an interview originally published by Skift.