Rural tourism entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan’s Northwest are reaping the rewards of cooperation with Italy’s experienced tourism sector. The EU initiative, Ruralis Tornare, roughly translated as ‘returning to rural’, recognises the potential for growth in rural- and eco-tourism in Azerbaijan. Effective digital marketing, competitive prices, local products and tailored services such as fishing, cooking classes and horse and bike tours are just some of the factors helping attract greater numbers of international tourists to the region.
The project is a ‘Twinning’ between the Azerbaijan Young Entrepreneurs Network (AZYEN) and the Milan Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Craft and Agriculture (FORMAPER). It provides a platform for knowledge, know-how and best practice exchanges. Overall, the project is strengthening the capacities of AZYEN as a Business Support Organisation, and expanding cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan.
Under this approach, links and partnerships are being created between Italy and Azerbaijan through training courses and study visits, such as the recent visit of a group of eight young Azerbaijani tourism entrepreneurs to Italy.
The entrepreneurs had experts from the Milan Chamber of Commerce advise them on international trends and Italian best practices in rural tourism, local development and sustainable innovations. Khayala Mammadova, coordinator of the project, said ‘the training was integrated with practical cases to ensure ownership and relevance to the Azerbaijan tourism market’.
Another aspect of the project has been improving the marketing skills of tourism managers. ‘We have engaged a person from a media consulting company to support the entrepreneurs from rural communities to upgrade their businesses using digital marketing and to take advantage of the opportunities of the internet and social media to promote their businesses’, Khayala said.
‘For example, there are very few ads online in English about tourism in Azerbaijan, and especially rural tourism. This is why the project is helping our participants to capitalise on this new form of marketing to reach an international audience. The businesses taking part have received real benefits from this support’, added Khayala.
Snapshots of success
An example of a rural tourism business taking part in the project is Hope Lake Guesthouse, a family hotel in a rural area of the Zagatala region, 450 kilometres from Baku. Although established only a few years ago, today the hotel is one of the most popular in the region, with guests having the opportunity to learn how to cook local foods.
One particular type of tourism offered in Italy attracted the attention of the Azerbaijani tourist operators – business tourism including elements of agriculture production. ‘For Azerbaijan, that type of tourism business is not typical, but is very attractive and we will try to create this type of tourism’, said Elman Yuzbashev, owner of the Hope Lake Guesthouse, who was taking part in the study visit.
Elman made a lot of changes to his business after the study visit to Italy by introducing web marketing and using websites such as Facebook and Booking.com. ‘Before the visit I did not use these sites actively’, Elman acknowledged. By using these new digital marketing tools, Elman has been attracting more business. ‘We see more interest from foreign tourists who can now communicate with us directly, and our visitor numbers have increased by 30% since last year!”
‘Another good idea for me was eco-tourism, and I began to develop this type of tourism’, said Elman. ‘I’m happy that guests from Europe say that our practice of producing simple organic foods free of chemical additives is popular. The tradition of watching the process of preparing bread or cheese, cooking dishes and fishing at our own lake are parts of our culture, and guests are very interested to experience this’, he says. He looks forward to having another opportunity to visit Europe soon to learn more about the practice of running an eco-farm and organising rural tours.
Another tourism operator taking part in the project is Ilgar Aliyev, owner of Ilgar’s Hostel in the town of Sheki, 400 kilometres from Baku in the Northwest of Azerbaijan, on the South side of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. The Sheki region is traditionally one of the most popular tourist areas in Azerbaijan, where each year thousands of foreigners come to enjoy magnificent nature and delicious food. The number of local family hotels and hostels has tripled over the last two years.
Ilgar’s Hostel is family run and many local and foreign tourists stay each month. As a result of the study visit, Ilgar would like to introduce the tradition of using old village houses for accommodation, something he saw in Italy, and organise horse and bike tours.
Like the other participants, he learned how to use Booking.com, Facebook and YouTube to represent his hostel and maintain direct contact with his clients, bypassing tourist companies. However, Ilgar says that ‘one should be careful not to only use Internet tools, because local tourists sometimes have a problem with booking or misunderstand how it works’.
The manager of Amrah Travel, Shabnam Garayeva, is also taking part in the project. Amrah Travel was established in 2014 as a start-up offering tourism packages, cross-selling and collaborating directly with Italian travel companies. For Europeans, Azerbaijan is an exotic country where tourists can take advantage of low-cost rural tourism activities.
Shabnam noted that ‘we have to take into account the need to keep costs reasonable. That’s why we are preparing a business plan for a special tour package with attractive prices, with the support of the project. Usually, the budget tourist packages in Europe cost around EUR 80 daily and we are trying to meet this price standard in order to make Azerbaijan attractive for European visitors’.
Ingredients for prosperous future
It is becoming easier for international tourists to visit Azerbaijan now as foreign tourists can get electronic visas in just three days. However, more improvements are needed to upgrade services around booking hotels, tickets and other tourism services.
An interesting new development has been the inclusion of Azerbaijan in regional tour packages offered by European and Georgian tourism companies, with ‘Visiting Caucasus’ packages giving tourists the opportunity to explore the region.
Khayala Mammadova from AZYEN is positive about the future prospects of the project and the rural tourism industry, and summed up by saying ‘we continue to advance new ideas with our Italian partners and we are sure that our work will continue to improve the rural tourism sector in Azerbaijan, improving businesses and attracting more international tourists, and creating much needed growth and employment in rural areas’.