The opening of regular air travel in Uzbekistan helps the country’s tourism industry to rebound after the coronacrisis. However, getting back to the pre-pandemic level will take some time. According to experts from the World Tourist Organization (UNWTO), this process may last up to four years. In an exclusive interview with the Kursiv edition deputy prime minister, minister of tourism and sport of Uzbekistan, Aziz Abdukhakimov talks about the country’s tourism and the pandemic consequences it has faced.
– What are the consequences of the pandemic for the Uzbekistani tourist sector?
– Coronacrisis and quarantine measures have been a severe test for all sectors of our economy, including tourism. Uzbekistan has lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of the closed borders and no foreign guests. In 2016 there were 1.3 million tourists, in 2019 – 6.7 million with a total amount of tourist services export of $1.3 billion. Of course, we had big expectations for 2020 but then the pandemic hit. The amount of tourism export was just $260 million last year. This year we are expecting 1.7 million foreign tourists and a profit of $400 million.
– How the pandemic changed plans for tourism development?
– Quarantine measures forced us to revise our concept of the industry’s development; we were forced to look for new opportunities. In 2021 President Shavkat Mirziyoeyev addressed the parliament and declared the Year of Youth and People’s Health. At the same time, tourism was declared as a strategic sector of our economy. About $100 million was allocated to new projects in the tourism industry to make it more successful. I mean to improve tourist infrastructure, repair roads, renovate historical monuments and tourist centers, and construct all amenities needed.
In 2020 there were just 1.8 million internal tourists while in 2019 there were 14.7 million Uzbekistanis, who traveled around the country. This year we are expecting 7.5 million local tourists.
To achieve this goal, the government has approved a set of subsidies and benefits for local travelers. For example, if a tourist is buying an internal tour, he or she can get a 50% discount.
As a result, there are crowds of local tourists in Samarkand, at Registan Square for example. On weekends it’s even hard to find some accommodation place.
We also want to make Uzbekistan part of Umra+ and are currently negotiating with foreign partners with large Muslim communities to show people our holy sites. They are pearls of Islamic heritage. Recently, our delegation has visited such Muslim regions of Russia as Dagestan, Chechnya, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, where people expressed a huge interest in our country.
I think religious tourism is a very promising area for Uzbekistan. Now we work on transport issues to open direct flights from Islamic countries to such tourist centers as Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench.
The Government’s Support
– What the government is doing to support the tourism industry?
– We did our best to diminish the pandemic’s consequences for the industry with the help of a large number of subsidies. In February, President Mirziyoyev expanded the period of benefits for entrepreneurs until the end of the year. Among those benefits are: tax rate reduction (by 50%), debt moratorium, land and property taxes cancellation and reduction of the social tax from 12% to 1%. Moreover, many entrepreneurs were able to receive zero-interest loans, grants and subsidies.
The government is actively investing in tourism. For example, the state subsidizes the construction of a ropeway with $95,000 for every 500 meters. The construction of quickly built accommodation places is also subsided with $475 per bed.
Other recipients of the state’s support are hotels, the food industry, guides, tour companies and other industry players.
– Uzbekistan’s strategy on tourism mentions several lacking points, for example, a lack of guest rooms. What are you doing to solve this problem?
– Over the period from 2021 to 2023, Uzbekistan is going to implement more than 430 projects in the area of tourism with a total cost of $1.5 billion. About $1.1 billion is expected to be direct foreign investments. These days, investors from Turkey, Russia, South Korea and India show a huge interest in the hotel business in Uzbekistan.
We use a system of subsidies for construction projects and royalty payment for well-known hotel brands and it does work. Now we have Hilton and Marriott hotels and expect more brands. For example, Hyatt, which already runs a hotel in Tashkent, is going to build a second one in Bukhara.
– What are you doing to remove problems with visas?
– We’ve made big progress in this field in just a few years. Since 2018 entry visas have been lifted for citizens of 81 states; now we have 90 such partners in total. As a result, in 2019 we saw 58% growth in tourist flow.
In 2018 we launched a new service for obtaining visas online: E-VISA.GOV.UZ. The system makes it possible for citizens of 57 states to get visas online. At the same time, citizens of the other 53 states, who stay in Uzbekistan on transit, can stay in the country without a visa for five days. Also, Uzbekistan canceled visas for foreigners under the age of 16 years.
On March 1, 2021, the non-visa regime was opened with several countries, including the Kingdom of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman and China.
– The pandemic severely hit international travel. What is Uzbekistan going to do to reactivate air travel in the country?
– Air travel has already started to rebound and it makes us happy. For example, we can travel by air to Russia, Georgia, Latvia, Germany and some other countries. If you want to travel to Almaty there are flights every single day. Also, SCAT airline has opened a line between Aktau and Urgench.
Recently, we successfully negotiated with the Egyptian AirCairo to increase the frequency of flights from Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh to Tashkent and Samarkand. We are also talking with JazeeraAirways about a new flight from Kuwait to Tashkent. Among the other countries we want to reactivate air travel with are Indonesia, Qatar, Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, Poland and Ukraine.
– What can Uzbekistan offer these foreign airlines?
– The Ministry of Tourism and Sport in conjunction with Uzbekistan Airports has developed a special program aimed at supporting religious tourism. This program offers foreign airlines a 50% discount for ground services at the international airports of Uzbekistan. Also, we offer a differentiated 30% discount for those companies that are launching new flights. So far, several airlines are examining our offer and we expect some new flights from Tashkent and other regional centers to be opened soon.
By the way, Uzbekistan is part of the Open Sky regime since last year. On top of that, Uzbekistan is going to use our unique geographical location to promote a new international transport corridor between Europe and South Asia. Currently, the Ministry of Transportation is trying to persuade several airlines to use Uzbekistani airports as a transit hub.
New Tourist Product
– Why do tourists have to visit Uzbekistan?
– We are trying to diversify our tourist services. We want tourists to see not only our prominent historical monuments but also enjoy a wide range of activities. For example, we are developing such new areas as extreme, mountain, medical, agro and ethnic tourism.
Our main audiences are tourists from CIS countries, our neighbors as well as Arab-speaking countries and South Asian states.
And as I said before, religious tourism is our big priority. Our ministry plans to attract more than 700,000 foreign tourists of all religions this year.
Another direction is sports tourism because the Uzbekistani climate is ideal for various sports. For example, despite the pandemic, there were more than 20 large sports events in 2020. This year the country is going to have about 50 local and international competitions.
I am proud of such sports projects as Samarkand Half Marathon. This type of sport, as well as running itself, has been developing very fast lately. It worth noting that this sport is not promoted by the authorities; it’s the people’s initiative and I believe this kind of project will thrive in the future.
– What about new tourist routes?
– There are lots of interesting sights in Uzbekistan along with popular Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Due to lack of infrastructure, these areas are not well-known so far. However, as new hotels and new roads emerge, we see how its tourist potential is being unlocked.
For example, a very interesting destination is the Republic of Karakalpakstan. Many want to visit its capital Nukus to see Savitskiy Museum, which is well-known all over the world. Also, the government is going to transform some parts of the area into a gambling zone.
Fergana, Andijan and Namangan regions have made a bet on agrotourism. They are going to create an entire tourist ring called Fergana Valley Circuit, which should connect tourist centers of the Fergana Valley with the help of the railroad.
The task of tourism development has a high priority for our authorities at all levels, that’s for sure. This is a wide-scale work and as you can see each year, some new tourism objects and routes have emerged.
For example, last year the government allocated $42,700 for developing new tourist routes and to support efforts by tour operators and guides.
Safety Is the Highest Priority
– How is Uzbekistan going to protect foreign tourists against coronavirus?
– Currently, the situation with COVID-19 is stable in Uzbekistan. The vaccination campaign has already started throughout the country.
We are happy to see every foreign guest; the only condition is a negative PCR test. These rules of entry to the country fully match similar rules in other countries all over the world. This test result is valid no longer than 72 hours and should be taken in laboratories, which are recognized by our Ministry of Health.
The main tool we use to make sure every tourist is safe is an «Uzbekistan. Safe travel GUARANTEED» system. This project is aimed to ensure that all key tourist sites, routes and hotels are safe. Moreover, if a foreign tourist happened to get ill with COVID-19, we will provide him with $3,000 compensation for medical treatment.
Travels with Neighbors
– Recently you have talked about joint tours for citizens of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. How is this project going to work?
– Central Asia is one of the trendiest tourist destinations worldwide. In 2020 the Central Asian part of the Silk Road was called a leader of tourist regions, according to Lonely Planet. And this achievement couldn’t be possible without close cooperation within the region and a simplified visa regime.
In conjunction with our Kazakhstani counterparts, we actively work on new joint tours and trans-border tourist products, which should cover big cities and tourist centers in two countries. Estimates show that such programs can attract about two million foreign guests.
For example, one of the most interesting routes is a religious tour to Arystanbab and Akhmed Yassavi’s Mausoleum in the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan and then Khakimota and Zangiata in the city of Tashkent.
Another big infrastructural project is a high-speed railroad between Turkestan, Shymkent and Tashkent. Once this project is implemented it would boost trans-border tourism, I believe.
– Is there any plan to simplify the border crossing process?
– Yes, of course. To ensure that the joint tour system is working, we have to make tourist business work conditions as comfortable as possible. I mean modernization of the existing roads and building new highways between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. We also need to improve bus travel across the border. This year we are installing at all border checkpoints a new service called Fasttrack. I have no doubts that this will help us to simplify border crossing; this project is going to be successful.
Generally speaking, Uzbekistani and Kazakhstani tourism agencies work together in many areas. However, most importantly we have a common vision that Central Asia should be presented to the world as a united tourist destination.