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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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Global Tourism Crisis Committee Meets Again: Coordination, Vital Ingredient for Recovery

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Consistent and harmonized travel protocols, enhanced safety measures and the protection of jobs and livelihoods are the main ingredients needed for the restart of tourism. The Sixth meeting of the UNWTO Global Tourism Crisis Committee reminded participants of the need to work together as the only means of advancing the sustainable recovery of the sector. The meeting produced a commitment to create a new UNWTO Committee on Common Safety Protocols to increase confidence in international travel, as well as firm plans for enhanced consumer protection for consumers and measures to protect jobs.

Setting the tone for the meeting, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili made clear that, with many millions of livelihoods at stake, inaction is not an option, and that the rapid and sustainable recovery of tourism is essential.

“Strong coordination is needed to accelerate the lifting of travel restrictions in a safe and timely manner, to increase investment in systems that support safe travel, including testing on departure, and to sustain and support businesses and jobs. If we fail to address these three priorities, we will fail to restart tourism, and so fail to save millions of livelihoods”, Mr. Pololikashvili said.

This call for coordination was echoed by a diverse range of voices from the top level of politics of all global regions, including  interventions from the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism of Spain, Reyes Maroto; Ahmed bin Aqil Al Khateeb, Minister of Tourism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Khaled El-Enany, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities of Egypt;  Dato’ Sri Hajah Nancy Shukri, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture of Malaysia;  Abdulla Mausoom, Minister of Tourism of the Maldives; Rita Marques, Secretary of State for Tourism for Portugal and Jose Luis Uriarte, Sub-Secretary of Tourism of Chile.

Common safety protocols

At a practical level, a proposal for a new set of common travel protocols was put forward by Harry Theoharis, Minister of Tourism of Greece, and welcomed by UNWTO’s leadership and other members of the Committee. Furthermore, illustrating how safe, international travel can return, Marco Troncone, CEO of Rome Fiumicino Airport highlighted the role robust hygiene protocols and innovation can play in boosting consumer confidence.

Along the same lines, ICC Secretary-General John Denton, explained plans for a comprehensive system of testing on departure to raise consumer confidence and take away the need for quarantine on arrival. Alongside them, Adam Goldstein, Global Chairman of CLIA, and a Luis Felipe Oliveira, Director General of Airports Council International made clear the proactive measures undertaken to cruise tourism and air travel safe for both passengers and workers.

Putting people first

Just as people are at the driving force of global tourism, so too has UNWTO stressed that recovery policies must recovery be people-focused. For starters, restoring consumer trust and coherent and standardized international protocols are mutually reinforcing and critical for the return of tourism. The Crisis Committee meeting saw UNWTO announce plans for a new International Code for the Protection of Tourists. This will be the first legal framework to protect tourists’ rights as consumers, harmonizing minimum standards across different countries and ensuring the fair distribution of responsibility to tourists affecting by the pandemic among stakeholders across the sector.

A technical committee for the creation of the Code is being set up and will meet before the end of the month. Alongside this, UNWTO is working to protect jobs and help workers affected by the pandemic find new opportunities. Addressing the Committee Kamal Ahluwaila of tech company Eightfold.ai outlined the new Jobs Factory portal, launched with UNTWO in order to unite jobseekers with employers.

Harmonized travel criteria

Reflecting UNWTOs high-level relations with European institutions, the European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders addressed the Committee to outline plans to introduce common criteria for restrictions on travel across the EU. UNWTO advocated for non-EU Members to be considered part of this movement towards standardisation, particularly the common colour-coded mapping system currently being rolled out for the safe relaunch of free moment.  And reflecting UNWTO’s status as part of the wider UN response to COVID-19, ICAO Secretary-General Fang Liu, was joined by representatives from IATA, ILO, IMO the WHO and  for the virtual meeting, in addition to representation from the OECD.

About the UNWTO Global Crisis Committee

Leveraging its unrivalled status as the global leader of tourism, UNWTO united leaders from across the sector. From its first meeting, the UNWTO Global Crisis Committee has provided a platform for governments, businesses and international bodies to express their concerns and share ideas for the restart of tourism. The Committee’s composition reflects not only UNWTO’s unique influence and status as a part of the United Nations but also tourism’s importance for every global region and the sector’s cross-cutting nature. Members are drawn from all parts of the world and include government Ministers, leaders and key representatives of International Organizations and UN agencies and from tourism’s private sector.

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UNWTO and Expedia Group to Share Data and Insights to Guide Tourism Recovery

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image: UNWTO

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) will work alongside the Expedia Group to strengthen ties between the public and private sectors and drive tourism’s recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that will see them collaborate on a range of topics, with the common goal of driving recovery and making the sector more resilient and sustainable.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili met with representatives of the Expedia Group in Brussels, on the back of successful talks with leaders of the European Institutions. Highlighting UNWTO’s commitment to strengthening ties with the private sector, this enhanced partnership will see the United Nations Specialized Agency work more closely with the Expedia Group. Joint actions will focus on market intelligence and innovation. UNWTO and Expedia will also work together to promote entrepreneurship and professional education, and in the field of consumer protection.

Secretary-General Pololikashvili said: “From the very start of this crisis, UNWTO has been a strong advocate of close cooperation between the public and private sectors. This enhanced partnership will help improve our knowledge of global tourism trends, allowing us to respond to new challenges and guide tourism’s recovery. It will also help us place innovation and sustainability at the heart of this recovery, ensuring tourism emerges stronger than before.”

The partnership with between UNWTO and Expedia Group will see both parties share data on tourism trends and developments, both at the global and the local scale. This will help inform decision-making, producing data-based policies aimed a tourism’s sustainable recovery and future development.

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UNWTO to Harness the Power of A.I to Link Tourism Workers with Jobs

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The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is to work with California-based Eightfold.ai to help connect tourism jobseekers with employers and so drive the global recovery of the sector.

The new partnership will see UNWTO harness the power of the Eightfold Talent Exchange, a marketplace connecting workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with available jobs. Using advanced deep-learning AI, the Exchange matches people to the right jobs in companies that are hiring, creating a bridge between those looking for a job and organizations that need to hire quickly.

All 159 UNWTO Member States, as well as the more-than-500 Affiliate Members will benefit from direct access to the platform. They will also be able to offer Talent Exchange to workers who have lost their tourism-related jobs due to COVID-19. At the same time, workers can sign up to find available jobs that make use of their skills and experience. Members that have hiring needs also can sign up to post jobs and find talent who can do the job immediately.

Connecting employers with tourism talent

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili says: “The COVID-19 pandemic has hot the global tourism sector hard, and up to 120 million jobs are at risk. However, tourism has a long history of adapting and embracing innovation. This partnership will be a great help to the many millions of people who are dependent on tourism for their livelihoods, while also connecting employers with the very best talent our sector has to offer.”

Kamal Ahluwalia, President of Eightfold.ai, added: “With Eightfold Talent Exchange, we’re providing all members of UNWTO with a platform that can unite Members over a shared goal: getting individuals who have lost their jobs back to work. The AI powering the Exchange understands the capabilities of each person: both the skills that they have from their work experience, and the skills that they could easily learn.”

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