Azerbaijan expects to welcome 20% more GCC tourists in 2019

Country aims to lure regional business travellers in latest tourism push

epa07538098 People walk along the Caspian seaside with the Flame Towers in background in Baku, Azerbaijan, late 29 April 2019. The Olympic Stadium in Baku has been selected to host the 2019 UEFA Europa League final on 29 May 2019, the first such fixture to be played in Azerbaijan  EPA/SRDJAN SUKI
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Azerbaijan expects to record 20 per cent year-on-year growth in visitors from the Arabian Gulf in 2019 as trade and transport links deepen.

"The GCC is a very important market for Azerbaijan, and will continue to be so due to close proximity between the two places, strong cultural connections and great accessibility as more Gulf airlines launch new routes here," Florian Sengstschmid, chief executive of Azerbaijan Tourism Board, told The National.

The number of GCC visitors to the oil-rich Eurasian state jumped 30 per cent year-on-year in 2018 to 200,000 people – representing around 8 per cent of Azerbaijan’s total 2.8 million visitors that year, and placing the region third behind Russia and Georgia as the top two source markets for Azerbaijan, Mr Sengstschmid said in an interview at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai on Tuesday.

Russia, with 600,000 visitors, accounted for more than 20 per cent of the total, Mr Sengstschmid said in an interview at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai on Tuesday.

The number of GCC tourists is projected to grow further in 2019 to reach 240,000 representing annual growth of around 20 per cent, he added. This is a slowdown from the previous year due to an initial uptick after Azerbaijan introduced visa-on-arrival for GCC nationals at the start of 2018, Mr Sengstschmid added. The country later introduced visa-on-arrival for all UAE residents, including expatriates.

In the past two years, Gulf carriers including Emirates, Etihad Airways, flydubai and Air Arabia have launched or expanded routes to the capital Baku or the second largest city Qabala.

Trade links between Azerbaijan and the GCC – in particular, the UAE – are strong historically. Dubai’s non-oil trade alone with Azerbaijan stood at around Dh808m in 2016, according to figures published by the UAE’s state news agency Wam, and Azerbaijan opened a trade representative office in Dubai in 2018.

Azerbaijan, a secular country but one in which 95 per cent of the population is Muslim, also has cultural and religious links with the GCC, increasing its appeal for Arabian Gulf visitors.

The country is aiming to attract an increasing number of business tourists from the GCC, including prospective investors in Azerbaijan’s fast-growing real estate, manufacturing and hospitality industries.

“We are seeing growing appetite from GCC business tourists – especially those scouting for new investment opportunities as Azerbaijan establishes itself as a reliable destination for foreign business,” the chief executive said.

Azerbaijan ranked 25 out of 190 economies in the World Bank’s annual ease of doing business ratings, jumping from 57 in 2017.