‘Reset button for all destinations’

The current COVID-19 pandemic situation has been a reset button for all destinations and will level the playing field for everyone, Florian Sengstschmid, CEO, Azerbaijan Tourism Board, tells TTN in a web interview.

“We at Azerbaijan Tourism Board are working extra hard to not just follow UNWTO and WHO standards, but also to look beyond the obvious and rethink basic concepts that have been taken for granted,” says the CEO.

“Tourism is doubtless one of the worst hit sectors of the coronavirus pandemic. We hope there is soon some light at the end of the tunnel for us. The government of Azerbaijan has released half a billion dollars worth of funds for all those affected by the crisis, including travel agents, hotels, guides, self-employed people, etc.

“We are looking at recovery through the following four stages. The first phase of travel and tourism recovery has been virtual talks and communication with partners, keeping them engaged and informed.”

Amid the corona-confusion, Azerbaijan Tourism Board managed to launch virtual tours of some of its key attractions last month, in an attempt to keep travellers around the world interested and to help them indulge in some ‘couch surfing’.

“The second phase will be the opening up of domestic travel within the country. As soon as we get a go ahead from the government, we will launch a big domestic travel campaign allowing hotels and restaurants to reopen. Obviously, there will be new standards including those of social distancing. We will not just follow UNWTO, WHO standards, but will also need to look at other important factors. For instance, instead of having guests queue up at the breakfast buffet, would it be wise to install self-catering facilities in the guestrooms?

“The third phase will be welcoming regional travellers from our neighbouring countries: mainly Georgia and Russia. This would be the first cross-border travel for us, and essentially by road.

“And the fourth and final stage will be the full reopening of international travel, airports opening to full capacity, when we will be looking at conversion campaigns, and how to get international travellers to come back to Azerbaijan.”

As a destination, Azerbaijan is perfect for family and friends enjoying beautiful nature from their private chalets and apartments, so in that sense we are well set up, for the initial phase of international tourists, says the CEO.

Although tourism stands for 2.5 per cent of the GDP, tourism is and will continue to be a top priority for the government of Azerbaijan. “We are a relatively new destination but in just over two years, we've welcomed 3.2 million inbound travellers, which is a huge accomplishment for the country. Despite cancellations and ongoing travel restrictions, our terrific team at the Azerbaijan Tourism Board are working tirelessly to come up with innovative solutions to adopt virtual experiences and upskill industry partners. From social media to e-learning platforms, webinars, virtual road shows and hackathons, the team is doing its best to keep Azerbaijan’s flame ablaze. This drive and ambition will continue, and we look forward to returning to our target markets, continuing our partnerships and friendships and promoting Azerbaijan.”

In late April, Azerbaijan started its e-learning platform Azerbaijan 101 – including webinars on different regions for the Middle East trade. This will be followed by the fully guided virtual B2B fam trips in May. “We gather a group of agents and take them through the hotels and destinations, together with a tour guide and the manager for that specific market, so it’s a completely digital fam-trip experience.” Within the framework of the fam trips, there is also a provision for an online roadshow – a B2B workshop, giving travel agencies around the world an opportunity to communicate with suppliers and agencies in Azerbaijan.