Q: What are the main investment opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs considering investments in Azerbaijan’s tourism sector?
A: We have enough luxurious hotels for the next three to five years, but there is still a need for mid-priced accommodation that is more affordable to younger tourists, for example. Additionally, opportunities exist in areas such as agricultural tourism and eco-tourism. We are developing the sea shore, and we are developing lake and forest tourism.
We are also constructing Shakhdag, the first ski resort in Azerbaijan. In 2013 we will have completed 50% of the site. It is a state investment, but the planning, feasibility studies and architecture have been completed by top global companies, including [Italian snow-making expert] TechnoAlpin and [Austrian-Swiss cable car manufacturer] Doppelmayr. We have hired some Italian managers for the hotels already. We want to have an internationally recognised and managed resort. We have mountains... so why not utilise something given by nature?
Q: Critics might argue that the Shakdag project is only possible thanks to the proceeds from oil extraction, rather than economic development. What is your take on that?
A: Who else will pay for the gas, electricity and ski slopes, without even knowing what kind of income can be made [out of the Shakdag project]? The state is financing the infrastructure. Investments such as this define the direction we want to go in the future.
We have a lot of foreign investors in the country, not only from countries that are our traditional markets, such as Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, we also have investments from the US and France. The climate for new ventures is very positive as we have passed special laws protecting investors coming to our country.
Q: Azerbaijan gained some exposure in 2012 after hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. How much of an impact has it made on the country’s tourism sector?
A: The Eurovision Song Contest opened the door to Azerbaijan for the rest of Europe and helped build a wave of positive sentiment, especially for the younger generation. We were able to show that we are a country at a religious and cultural crossroads, with our architecture and cuisine [representing a] combination of our European and Islamic heritage.
The contest also had a big impact on our residents. Many of them were involved in preparations or provided services around the event. Events such as this also prompt us to ask how our modern tourism sector should look.
Q: How much does the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region impede your country’s efforts to attract more tourism and investments?
A: This conflict influences general life here and shapes the relationship we have with the rest of the world. I don’t want to intervene in an area that is not in my responsibility as a minister, but as a citizen of Azerbaijan I can say that currently this conflict influences Armenia more.
Azerbaijan, with its natural resources and opportunities to use the income from them cleverly, is looking forward. We hope that the conflict will be finished soon with respect to the resolutions of the UN.