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How to Develop Tourism in Tajikistan?

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An interview with Andrea Dall’Olio, Lead Financial Sector Economist at the World Bank, about Tajikistan’s tourism potential and what the country can do to respond to increasing international tourist demand.

What kind of tourist comes to Tajikistan? And what makes Tajikistan an attractive destination for tourists?

Tajikistan has both natural beauty and cultural richness, which appeals to tourists from all around the world. In addition, the country is relatively unexplored, and therefore considered “exotic”. This is a big selling point for today’s adventure tourists who want to explore places where few other people have been to.

Tajikistan attracts two kinds of adventure tourists. The first group includes independent tourists who travel the country without reliance on tour operators. This usually includes backpackers and bikers, who are attracted by the Pamir Highway, the Fann Mountains and most importantly, the country’s warm and hospitable people.

The second group includes tourists who visit the country through tour operators as part of Tajikistan-only or multi-country packages. They come to see the unique cultural sites along the Silk Road, such as Sarazm (a UNESCO site), the Hissor Fortress, the Ajina Teppa excavation site, the Khulbuk Castle, the Yamchun Fortress, and others.

Tajikistan is generally known as a safe destination, despite its proximity to Afghanistan. This was confirmed by a 2018 World Bank Group survey of tour operators: over 50% of international and local respondents confirmed they are generally satisfied with the country’s security situation.

Tourism development depends on many factors – from liberalization of the aviation sector, development of basic infrastructure, security issues, availability of information online, etc. Is there a roadmap on tourism development in Tajikistan? What are the priority issues to be addressed and what should the areas of focus be?

Tourism in Tajikistan is recognized as an important contributor to job creation and economic growth, so the Government of Tajikistan has put in place a number of initiatives to make the country more attractive for visitors. However, Tajikistan can do a lot more to attract more tourism spending.

The 2018 World Bank Group survey of tour operators pointed out several critical areas which should be looked at. For example, improving air travel connectivity to Tajikistan, as well as in-country transport are very important. Launching a Dushanbe-Khorog flight could be quite transformational. Tanzania, for example, significantly improved its tourism sector by allowing small independent airlines to fly small planes (like the Cessna Caravan) within the country.

Another area is the quality of accommodation and facilities: access to water and sanitation in guesthouses, homestays and tourism sites needs significant improvements. These improvements do not require large investments, but are critical for the comfort of visitors.

The preservation and rehabilitation of tourism sites, enhanced tourism services, simplification of the regulatory environment in the tourism sector, upgrading of skills, better regional connectivity in Central Asia, improved food services, and stronger marketing and promotion were also highlighted by tour operators as steps that could help Tajikistan reach its full development potential.

On average, a visitor in Tajikistan spends between $800 and $1,400 for a 6-12 day stay, excluding airfare, which is significantly below the global average. According to UNWTO, adventure tourists worldwide spend an average of $3,000 on an 8 day-trip.

Google maps, Trip Advisor, Air B&B, Uber – these are among the most used services by tourists and visitors throughout the world. Unfortunately, they are either not developed at all or poorly developed in Tajikistan. Why? What can we do to make these services available in Tajikistan, and therefore make it easier for visitors?

These platforms have changed the way people travel around the world. Some of them have made an inroad in Tajikistan. For example, right now, you can use AirBnB to book accommodation in Dushanbe. Of course, the inventory is still very small. In order to utilize these platforms on a wider scale in the country, some basic conditions need to exist.

For example, good internet connectivity is required to ensure a constant online presence and facilitate instant communication with guests. Language skills are also important, in order to be able to communicate with tourists directly. In addition, adequate financial infrastructure needs to be in place to allow guests to pay and reserve their accommodation online.

However, such challenges do not need to stop the growth of these services in the country. For example, to respond to the internet and language challenges, an interim approach could include a group of homestay owners who would come together and channel their communication and room reservations through one person or entity within the community, someone who has a good internet connection and English language skills.

The World Bank, through the Rural Economy Development Project, is experimenting with some of these new approaches. And, if successful, they could be replicated in other parts of the country.

Of course, modern approaches also bring about new challenges which would need to be looked at closely and managed. For example, ensuring a level playing field between different types of accommodation service providers and requiring compliance with safety and security standards are important for growth of the tourism sector.

Why do you think that, despite the efforts of the government to attract tourists and promote this sector, only about a million tourists visited Tajikistan in 2018? What policy measures should be prioritized to address this issue?

Tajikistan has a lot of potential to develop as a tourism destination. The focus, however, should not be on the number of tourists, but on the revenue that tourists can bring to the country. Many countries have adopted a “low volume-high margin” strategy to attract tourists, in order to preserve their natural and cultural assets. Ideally, Tajikistan would attract more high-spending adventure tourists who could venture into local communities, eat local food, and engage in the natural and cultural activities that the country has to offer.

Attracting a high volume of low-spending tourists could lead to mass tourism, which in turn could put the country’s natural and cultural assets at risk. This is the reason why many places, such as Machu Picchu in Peru, have started limiting access for visitors to some cultural and historic sites.

What potential has the tourism sector for Tajikistan’s economy? For example, how many jobs can it create, and how much can it contribute to GDP?

Half of the global tourism workforce is under the age of 25. Given that almost 70 percent of Tajikistan’s population is under 30, tourism can be a good source of employment for the country’s growing population. The Rural Economy Development Project aims to increase the income of the local population through investment in the tourism and agri-business sectors in Khatlon region and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. Both regions border Afghanistan and opportunities for income generation are limited.

The project will support tourism development in three ways: first, it will support the preservation, rehabilitation and commercialization of a number of key historical and cultural sites. In addition, through small grants, the project will support communities in upgrading local tourism infrastructure such as cultural centers and museums, and in organizing festivals and other events to attract tourists.

Second, the project will support small businesses in tourism, such as homestays, restaurants, tour operators, artists and artisans, and others to improve the quality of their facilities, services and products, and to make them more attractive to visitors. For example, homestay owners will be able to use project funds to make improvements to their sanitation facilities.

Finally, the project will support the government’s efforts to promote Tajikistan globally and to invest in improving skills in the tourism sector.

The Rural Economy Development Project is financed through a $30 million grant from the Risk Mitigation Regime program, which works to mitigate risks of conflict and fragility in a few countries. In Tajikistan, the program focuses on creating jobs, generating income and reducing unemployment, in particular for women, youth and returning migrants who are the most vulnerable groups in Khatlon region and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. Enabling these regions to attract more tourism spending will translate into more income and employment for people. This is what we are trying to achieve by promoting community-based tourism.

Which country’s experience is also applicable for Tajikistan, in terms of tourism promotion and development?

There are many countries and destinations that could serve as good examples for Tajikistan. For example, Georgia has a flourishing tourism sector today. Of course, it also faces challenges, such as over-tourism in some parts of the country. Both the positive and negative experiences of a country like Georgia could be of interest to Tajikistan. Other countries, like Jordan, have significant cultural assets and face somewhat similar challenges of security. However, they have managed to promote their tourism despite the challenges.

Tajikistan could also learn from highly developed destinations, such as Switzerland or Italy, which also have significant natural and cultural assets, about how their tourism industry is organized, how cultural sites are managed and supervised, and how the public and private sectors complement each other.

What are the roles and responsibilities of the government and the private sector?

The government and the private sector have very distinct but complementary responsibilities. The government should focus on “public goods” – which includes putting in place the appropriate policies and regulations for the tourism sector, such as the e-visa, and adequate aviation policies. Also, it should focus on investing in and preserving the country’s cultural and natural assets, such as national parks, fortresses, and historical and archeological sites. Also, the government could help with marketing and promoting Tajikistan as a destination abroad.

The private sector, on the other hand, should focus on providing high quality products and services for visitors, such as accommodation, food, travel services, souvenirs, etc. And, there are areas in which the government and the private sector could work together with civil society. For example, the maintenance of a historical site could be delegated by the government to a civil society organization. So, the government and the private sector have to work together in close partnership for the tourism sector to flourish.

Would you come as a tourist to Tajikistan, and if so, why?

I have to admit that my views are “positively biased”. Having lived in Tajikistan and travelled extensively in the country, I have a passion for its beautiful landscape, nature, history and culture. I have travelled the Pamir Highway a number of times and have been fortunate to visit sites such as Takhti Sangin, Karon Castle, Yamchun Fortress and many other beautiful and undiscovered sites in Tajikistan. I have stayed in local homestays and have enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of the local people. I would visit Tajikistan at every opportunity and would recommend the experience to anyone who enjoys adventure, nature and culture.

World Bank Originally published in Asia Plus (in Russian) on November 15, 2019.

Andrea Dall’Olio, based in Dushanbe, leads the World Bank’s Rural Economy Development Project, which aims to develop the tourism and agribusiness sectors in Tajikistan as a means to increase income earning opportunities for the local population in Khatlon region and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.

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Vaccine Only Part of the Cure for Resumption of Pacific Travel: World Bank Report

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With COVID-19 vaccine distribution now in its early stages, early steps toward the resumption of labour migration in the Pacific region underway, and hopes for an international travel ‘bubble’ between Australia and New Zealand, questions are now arising as to what additional measures will be needed before international tourism returns to the Pacific region. In this context, World Bank analysis, How Could the Pacific Restore International Travel?, has recommended that Pacific Island countries and Papua New Guinea (PNG) take a phased approach to resuming international travel to the region in order to safeguard against COVID-19 outbreaks and ensure a steady economic recovery.

Pacific countries have, so far, managed to largely protect citizens from COVID-19 through international border closures. Yet, the economic impacts of the pandemic in the region have been significant. Recent economic modeling by the World Bank shows that all Pacific economies are estimated to have contracted in 2020– particularly those reliant on tourism. Fiji, for example, is estimated to have seen a reduction in GDP of close to 20% in 2020. While a modest recovery is expected in 2021, output levels are not expected to reach pre-COVID19 levels until 2022 or later.

“We want to assist policy makers in the Pacific and PNG to make informed decisions about the risks, and benefits, of when and how they choose to re-open to international travel,” explained Michel Kerf, World Bank Country Director for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands of the motivation behind producing the report.

“Due to weak health systems, any large COVID-19 outbreaks could have devastating consequences for the region. Recent World Bank surveys show that the pandemic’s economic impacts and closed borders are forcing families to make tough choices, like going without food or withdrawing children from schooling, and these can have harmful consequences for years to come.”

The report proposes that re-opening travel to the Pacific should be done in phases, but it cautions that relaxing strict border policies alone will not immediately deliver economic benefits. The three phases are:

  • Phase 1 beginning between January and July 2021: Pre-approved travel for specific groups (more temporary workers, students etc.) Strong testing and quarantine measures would be the foundation for any travel bubble.
  • Phase 2 beginning between June 2021 and May 2022: A ‘travel bubble’ with commercial flights for business and tourism. This would require sustained COVID-19 containment, improved testing and tracing, and initial roll-out of vaccinations.
  • Phase 3 beginning between October 2021 and October 2022: A ‘new normal’. Longer term general international travel requiring wide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatment with vastly improved testing and tracing.

“The ‘triple win’ of labor mobility – for the individual worker, for Australian and New Zealand businesses, and for PNG and Pacific economies – means we highly recommend it be prioritized in phase 1,” said Andrew Blackman, author of the report.

“Tourism is also central to several Pacific economies, with many flow-on effects for domestic supply chains and benefits for both genders. Not many other industries deliver the same economic and social benefits but opening up to tourists represents a big health risk and so must be planned carefully. The World Bank is committed to supporting our partner countries across the region as they determine the best course of action,” continued Mr. Blackman.

The report warns that Pacific governments and their partners will have to invest significantly in testing and tracing capabilities at every phase of re-opening, and each country will have to weigh this financial burden with the potential benefits of resuming international travel. Assuming that wide distribution of the current COVID-19 vaccines will take months, any ‘new-normal’ travel arrangements are unlikely to be in place before late 2021.

Based on this proposed timeline, economic activity across the Pacific could remain depressed for another 9-18 months. To help address this, the World Bank’s second phase of COVID-19 support to the region will focus on helping countries address the economic and social impacts of the pandemic, support businesses, safeguard jobs, and advance the reforms needed to speed recovery towards broad-based and sustainable growth.

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Coronavirus is a chance to reshape how we travel

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As the world slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, many people’s thoughts have turned to holidays. How many of us feel for a break? But what sort of break?

Months of lockdowns and isolation, not to mention deaths of loved ones and a new-found respect for healthcare workers, have triggered serious reflection on the ways in which the world has been functioning.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tourism sector. A healthy tourism industry is essential for the global economy, culture and environment, but in the past, it has also done harm.

“This pandemic sent a warning that we need to change the way we live, travel and see the world. We have an opportunity to build back greener and opt for low-carbon measures that protect nature and biodiversity while maintaining the economic benefits that the multi-million dollar tourism industry brings to local communities around the world,” said Mark Radka, Chief, Energy and Climate Branch of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The stakes are high. In 2019, the sector accounted for – directly and indirectly – some 330 million jobs worldwide, equivalent to one in 10 jobs globally, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Related sectors such as hospitality, hotels and food service industries, employed an additional 144 million workers in both developed and developing countries. Failure to recover could reduce global GDP by 1.5 to 2.8 per cent.

In some Small Island Developing States, tourism accounts for 30 per cent of export revenues (UNWTO). Small businesses, responsible for 80 per cent of the industry, are particularly vulnerable, as well as women, who make up 54 per cent of the tourism workforce, according to studies by ILO and the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Moving to sustainable tourism

UNEP is at the forefront of efforts to mainstream policies which transform the industry and address the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

At a recent online conference, Transforming Tourism for a resilient and sustainable post-COVID world, UNEP experts laid out a six-point plan moving from over tourism to sustainable tourism by building more resilient communities and businesses through innovation, digitalization, circularity, sustainable finance, sustainability and partnerships.

“Financial stimulus and recovery packages for COVID-19 are a once in a lifetime opportunity – not a dollar can be lost or wasted while transforming the tourism sector towards a future which is as  ‘pandemic and climate-proof’ as possible,” said Radka.

The pandemic’s impact on tourism has been significant. Dwindling tourist numbers in protected areas have threatened the species and communities that live there. Deforestation and poaching have risen in many parts of the world. COVID-19 also led to an increase in single-use plastic products and packaging by the hotel and tourism industry.

“Reducing the use of plastic items and packaging can actually reduce cross-contamination touch points,” said Helena Rey, Tourism Programme Officer from UNEP. “Through cleaning and sanitization procedures, the tourism industry can bring in re-use models that can increase traceability and reduce the risk of contamination. This would also ensure that tourism reduces the burden on local waste management systems and protects local ecosystems.”

UNEP is raising awareness of these issues through global campaigns and partnerships, including the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative and the Clean Seas campaign. These efforts call on citizens, governments, and industry to take action to reduce plastic pollution. In particular, the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative enables businesses, governments, and other tourism stakeholders to lead by example in the shift towards greater circularity in the use of plastics.

Transforming value chains

Tourism is responsible for 1/10th of greenhouse emissions worldwide. UNEP is working with its partners to reduce emissions created by hotel operations, food consumption and events. The work is supported by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

The Transforming Tourism Value Chains project focuses on environmental issues like cutting food waste, improving the sourcing of products and services, and improving the efficiency of air conditioners, in four countries in which tourism occupies a major role in the national economy: the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Mauritius and St Lucia.

Jake Kheel, vice president of Grupo Punta Cana, a private sector partner in the Dominican Republic, says this makes good business sense as holidaymakers, particularly the younger generation, want to be assured they are bringing value to the places they visit.

“People want to know their leisure time is not affecting local communities and eco-systems. Handled correctly, tourism can bring great benefits, create jobs, increase revenue for people who need schools and health services. It has to be self-sufficient,” he said.

The pandemic has also advanced digitalisation, innovation and the integration of new technologies into tourism. Virtual journeys, electronic menus, touchless check ins, digital consumption behaviours are on the rise. Since the COVID-19 outbreak this year, the online ticketing rates at scenic sites nationwide in China have risen to around 40% from less than 20% in 2019, signalling a rapid uptake in digitalization.

UN Environment

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CAREC Endorses Long-Term Strategy to Promote Safe, Sustainable, and Inclusive Tourism

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Ministers and senior officials from the 11 member countries of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program have endorsed a new long-term strategy to promote safe, sustainable, and inclusive tourism development in the region, and enhance its attractiveness as a competitive tourism destination globally.

The CAREC Tourism Strategy 2030, presented at the 19th CAREC Ministerial Conference held virtually today, was endorsed by ministers and senior officials representing Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan also attended the meeting.

“The CAREC region is home to a wide range of historical and cultural heritage sites; unique gastronomy and local traditions; a rich, unexplored network of cities; and arresting natural endowments that traverse national boundaries,” said Asian Development Bank (ADB) Vice-President Shixin Chen, co-chair of the conference. “Through the gradual implementation of regional initiatives, the CAREC Tourism Strategy 2030 will help the region bounce back from COVID-19 and establish itself as a sustainable, safe, and easily accessible tourism destination over the long term.”

In 2019, CAREC countries generated more than 420 million domestic tourists but only received 41 million foreign tourists. With the COVID-19 pandemic severely affecting global tourism in 2020, the CAREC Tourism Strategy 2030 accounts for the shift in travelers’ preference towards closer, safer, and uncrowded destinations while outlining a long-term plan to develop the region as an easily accessible tourism destination that provides visitors with a variety of unique experiences.

The strategy provides a roadmap towards the enhancement of the region’s connectivity through the harmonization of visa requirements and quality standards, simplification of border crossing procedures, and improvement of tourism infrastructure and facilities. It also focuses on tourism skills development while maximizing the use of digital technologies.

It aims to build a common brand, “Visit Silk Road”, through the creation of a CAREC tourism web portal and joint promotional activities for tour operators and other business providers. It seeks to develop unique tourism products and experiences catering to various segments including business, culture, nature and adventure, sun and beach holidays, health and wellness, and domestic weekenders.

“By fostering sustainable tourism growth in rural and urban areas, the new strategy will also help to reduce regional imbalances and empower local communities,” said ADB Director General for Central and West Asia Werner Liepach. “It will promote gender equality by promoting jobs and income opportunities for private sector SMEs and entrepreneurs including women and young people.”

The CAREC Program is a partnership of 11 countries to promote economic growth and sustainable development through regional cooperation. It is supported by development partners including ADB, which serves as the Secretariat for the CAREC Program.

Since 2001, the CAREC Program has financed 208 regional infrastructure and trade projects worth $39.2 billion. Of this, $14.7 billion has been financed by ADB, $15.8 billion by other development partners, and $8.7 billion by CAREC member country governments.

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