Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Posts Tagged ‘Tourism

Late Summer and Autumn: The Best Seasons in Azerbaijan

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This blog post is ironically appropriate, as I’m writing it while Lənkəran and a large swath of Azerbaijan is getting drenched in a steady three-day rainfall, not exactly the stuff of the best weather for tourism. But I do want to say that we are just setting into the best seasonal weather Azerbaijan sees all year. Spring comes in at a close second, but spring also feels like it’s come and gone in the space of a week. And then the unbearable heat sets in. Around here, the fall is where it’s at, starting in late August and early September, really settling in after a good rain (like the one we’re experiencing now).

Throughout the year, the southern region, including Lənkəran, Lerik, Astara, Masallı, and Cəlilabad, is a verdant reprieve from its neighbors to the north and west, where dry, desert-like conditions persist. Coming south on the Baku-Astara highway, you can feel the change as you come out of Salyan and Biləsuvar into Cəlilabad and watch as the Talysh mountains rise up and the land turns from a dusty sand-colored flatland to a green lawn stretching from the Caspian Sea to the foothills of the mountains. After these late summer rains, the effect will be magnified, the green grasses and leaves almost incomprehensibly vibrant. The mountain rivers that dried to a slow trickle will start rushing again, filling waterfalls and ravines with cold, fresh water cascading from mountain springs. After the dry summer, when the grasses dry brown and the streams slow to thin veins of water, the transformation bursts with freshness and life and vigor. This is the time to explore Azerbaijan. If ever there were a time to take advantages of the CBT Azerbaijan accommodations, this is it. Azerbaijan’s tourism services should take note: Azerbaijan’s natural beauty is a treasure that showcases itself in the perfect autumn weather. If there is going to be a high season in Azerbaijani tourism, this should be it.

With all of this in mind, we went on a hiking excursion this past weekend, up to the familiar passes of Lerik. Last time I did this, it was a mild December week, chilly through the nights and sunny during the days, hot in the sun and cool in the shade. This time, we followed a ravine up to a towering rock cliff bursting out from a mountainside, setting up camp right behind it, overlooking the valley stretching from the Lerik city and running out to the mountaintops bordering Iran. Breathtaking views as the clouds shrouded the tops and mist rolled through the valley, then clearing to reveal the jagged, rocky ridges above lush mountainsides. The landscapes speak for themselves:

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Written by Aaron

September 6, 2011 at 9:28 am

Return From Indonesia, and a Note On Tourism

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The plan was to have Mason step in to drop a few posts while I was out. Obviously, that plan didn’t work out, so sorry about that. No worries, though, as I’m back in Azerbaijan, fresh from Indonesia, and back in action on the blog. Things were great in Indonesia, a fantastic tourist experience. In light of that, I thought I’d get started with an article Steve came across a week ago about tourism in Azerbaijan, from Trend:

The Ministry representative further said that the current priority is to familiarize the world with Azerbaijan as a tourist-friendly country, to be commercializing and advertising Azerbaijani brands of tourism, expanding information on activities, creating regional touristic-cultural routes in the context of international programs, and expanding international relations.

“Our ministry is involved in about 20 exhibitions in leading world countries, to promote the annual tourism potential of our country “, Gurbanov said.

We’ve talked about tourism in Azerbaijan here before. Here, here, and here are some good examples. I think this story above does a great job of capturing a major issue with tourism in Azerbaijan. This has classic cart-before-the-horse written all over it.

It’s great that Azerbaijan recognizes that they need to promote themselves to a wider audience. For a country that wants to be a tourism hub, it’s far too common to hear someone say “What is Azerbaijan?”; we’re not even to the point of asking where Azerbaijan is yet. However, the more important aspect here is not that Azerbaijan isn’t known. Instead, it’s that Azerbaijan doesn’t necessarily have a tourism product to promote. There are some hotels around, but that doesn’t make for a very good tourist destination. Customer service is uniformly poor (a gem of a host here or there, but extremely rare). And Azerbaijani tourism services don’t do a very good job of focusing on the natural assets in the country, namely their mountains and the Caspian Sea. Wider availability of services such as hiking or backpacking tours or serious skiing spots (no, this is not a serious attempt at a ski resort) would be a drastic improvement. Actually making an effort to clean the beaches and the Caspian would go a long way towards making those resources appealing to a tourist. And these are all, of course, subject to the stranglehold that the relatively poor transportation infrastructure has on getting around this country (not to mention the barriers to actually getting here in the first place).

Coming from a country that has been doing their tourism bit for a long time, for millions of tourists per year (Azerbaijan hits about 17-18,000 tourists per year; Indonesia gets 17-18000 tourists in one day), it becomes readily apparent that Azerbaijan, despite any tourism-attracting assets it might have, has a long way to go before any of those assets start producing real tourism numbers. I would love to see Azerbaijan actually take advantage of its location and geography. Those kinds of changes could only reap positive benefits, across multiple spheres, environmental, economic, and cultural. The important part of the quote from above is that we continue talking about Azerbaijan’s tourism potential.  Somehow, we actually have to figure out how to get from potential to realization.

Written by Aaron

August 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Human Rights Hopes Still Tied to Eurovision in Azerbaijan

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It seems that no matter how many times I read about the potential for change represented by Eurovision’s being held in Azerbaijan in 2012, my skepticism remains. The most recent article about the potential for Eurovision’s spotlight to clean up Azerbaijan’s human rights record comes from our friends at RFE/RL:
Several Azerbaijani rights organizations have launched a public campaign about rights violations in the country ahead of Baku’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reports.…Anar Mammadli, an initiator of the campaign, told RFE/RL the activists want to see concrete changes from the Azerbaijani government.“First, political prisoners should be released from jail,” he said. “Second, we want public TV to provide more pluralism. Third, the right to freedom of assembly should be guaranteed. Fourth, we want to inform the world about violations of property rights. Finally, we are concerned about the visa regime. Foreigners coming to Azerbaijan regularly face this problem.”

Mammadli said the campaign will hold public debates, issue statements, and publish and distribute posters and other materials. He added that activists will also try to meet with the Eurovision organizing committee to press their case.

I think we can all agree that this is an ambitious agenda for a song contest.I don’t want to say that Azerbaijan will be unaffected by Baku being set at center stage in May 2012. And I also am aware that it’s probably good in these situations to set your goals high and see what you can get, instead of lowering expectations. However, a sober reading of the situation in Azerbaijan should likely lead to a more moderated view of what will happen over the next 10 months in the lead up to Eurovision 2012.Looking at the list of changes Anar Mammadli wants to see, I don’t think anyone would disagree with his assertions. Those would be fantastic changes to see in Azerbaijan, a true step forward (I’m all too familiar with that last issue regarding visas…) It’s also good to see that the campaign is focused on getting the word out. The problem, from my vantage point, is that there isn’t much demand from the people for these changes. If this were a situation where a significant chunk of the population regularly spoke out for the cause, that would be one thing. Yet, that doesn’t happen. Outside of Baku, those types of actions are non-existent. In Baku, most of the actions are weak. Whether that is because of the government’s vigilance or because of the population’s inability to work together, I think there are valid arguments both ways; both sides have some blame for these issues’ immobility.

At the same time, we still have to recognize that the government’s top priority seems to be maintaining stability. From what I think is the Azerbaijani government’s perspective, a more free right to assembly, a more free journalism, or a larger appeal to pluralism are all invitations to less stability. Since I come from a background that teaches me that increased pluralism is more stable, I can’t agree with that logic. But it’s not my decision to make, I suppose. I don’t have oil contracts to maintain, military agreements to tend to, or the fear that my neighbors to the north, the south, and the west all want to encroach on my country.

In the end, the spotlight will be on Baku and there will be some changes here in Azerbaijan because of it.  Whether those are the changes we want to see regarding human rights or infrastructure development, or it just ends up being a short-term influx of foreigners who show Azerbaijan some new faces, we should just remember to measure our expectations for the transformational power of Eurovision.

Written by Aaron

August 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm

The Market at Work: Price Controls and Transportation

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This post is low on academic rigor and high on anecdotal evidence. Also likely high on boring information about transportation from Baku to Lankaran (sorry). Travel from Baku to Lankaran by bus has been curiously difficult as of late, whereas for the first year and a half of my time here, getting to Lankaran from the Baku bus station was never a problem. Recently, including both this week and last week, it’s been difficult to get a seat on the bus. Instead of waiting around for another bus to roll in, I’ve had to take the smaller, non-air-conditioned overglorified vans. There have been long lines awaiting the buses, withe 20-30 people waiting after the big buses are full.

I’m less concerned about the ride itself than I am about why I can no longer get a regular bus from Baku to Lankaran. What’s changed? I think we’ve got two forces here, both having to do with a government-mandated change in the bus service. One has to do with the conditions of the bus ride, and the other has to do with price.

First, the buses have improved. I wrote about that here. We now have larger, air-conditioned buses shuttling back and forth, and this is a significant improvement over the the previous buses which were stuffy and hot, less comfortable. The bus then was not ideal. However, with the government’s focus on tourism lately, the new buses are likely a godsend from those with a stake in Lankaran tourism.

Second, the price for the bus is stuck at 5 AZN. It’s not any more, not any less. And this is probably a price that has come down from above, as well. The powers that be want a cheap, comfortable option for getting to Lankaran. I cannot imagine this would be the market rate, with all of those folks waiting by the bus to get a seat.

So those are the positive signs for bus transportation. Another thing that has happened is that train prices rose drastically. While conditions on the trains haven’t changed, the prices have more than doubled and in some cases increased by more than 150%. That’s a serious price hike. And now the cheapest, most uncomfortable ticket for the train is the same price as a bus seat. And those train spots don’t come with air conditioning. It’s become a pretty reliable event for me to be able to buy tickets the afternoon before boarding the night train. Before the price hikes, I had to get there an hour before the ticket window opened in order to get my ticket.

So now we are left with the over-glorified vans, the marshrutkas. With the buses attracting more people, and the bus price set at 5 AZN, marshrutkas have actually seen an increase in price. It’s now 6 AZN to Lankaran. Why is this? Seems to me that the marshrutka drivers now have to make up for a loss of clientèle due to the new buses. Since the marshrutkas seem to operate outside the (slightly) more regulated world of buses, they can likely charge whatever they need to make sure they are still making a profit. Here’s a great example of a government-regulated market (the buses) side-by-side with a less-regulated market (marshrutkas), causing a strange manipulation of the price structure (pay more, get a lesser service).

Written by Aaron

July 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm