A Change in the Tourism Winds
We know that this year is Azerbaijan’s Year of Tourism. And a lot of that tourism development is going into whitewashing and sanding down the rough edges of Baku. A few things are starting to show up in the regions outside of Baku, too, now. Mentioned before were Qusar’s new ski resort and Naftalan’s crude oil spa. Today, I can report on changes happening here in the south of Azerbaijan. While the road improvements come slowly, the transit options have shed their dusty, musty, nausea-inducing features and have reappeared in shiny, clean, tour-coach form. All of the buses between Lənkəran and Baku are now brand new white buses, with comfortable, reclining seats and working air conditioning. The price, for some reason, has also returned to the flat-rate 5 AZN (it had been floating up to 6 and 7 AZN for a one-way ride).
On top of that, there has a been one very noticeable route change. While the road has stayed the same, the pit stop in Salyan (unavoidable) has been reassigned to the Ceyran (Jay-rahn; known to us as the Persian Gazelle) Restaurant, a brand new restaurant and market seemingly in the middle of nowhere just south of Salyan city. Previously, the rest stop could have taken place at any of three or four different shoddy-looking establishments. Instead of these seedy tea houses, now there are menus, uniformed staff, and new buildings (though, how long they stay in good condition is in doubt).
Considering the business climate here, I can only imagine that much of these changes were mandated from above, someone in the tourism ministry in Baku realizing that if Lənkəran and the rest of the southern region is going to live up to its billing as a tourist hot-spot, they would need to shore up at least some of the services and transit to make it appealing. We can all be fairly certain that, prior to this, the bus drivers would stop at the tea houses of their friends, or whoever would give them the free lunch for having a bus load of passengers sit down for tea at their establishment. Somehow, that patronage system got overrun and streamlined.
Unfortunately, at least one less-than-enjoyable aspect of Azerbaijani customer service still remains: While Mason and I were going up to Baku on Friday, we were told that our pot of tea would cost us 2 AZN. This did not jive with the printed menu (another novelty) that said it was 1 AZN. After pointing this out the server, he relented and handed back to me the extra bill he tried to bilk out of us wealthy foreigners.
My last note: today was another interesting first. The bus driver today was a woman. I know. Start the woman-driver jokes. But female drivers in Azerbaijan are rare. Extremely rare. As in, there might be three of them in the entire region of Lənkəran. To have a woman handling a full-size tour bus is a step up, certainly. To get an idea of the growth of female drivers in Azerbaijan, check out this Azerbaijan International article written in 2003. Arzu Agayeva’s descriptions talk about Baku in 2003, and the situation for female drivers at the time. Even today, female drivers are still the minority in Baku, and almost non-existent in the rest of the country.