Stradding two continents where East meets West, Azerbaijan offers a rare and vibrant mix of culture, architecture and culinary heritage. Add in the warm climate and diverse natural landscapes – from mountains, volcanoes and gorges to waterfalls, forests and sandy beaches along the Caspian Sea – Azerbaijan has all the ingredients for socially-distanced tourism that is both accessible and exhilarating.
“In Azerbaijan, we are not artificially inventing touristic things for the sake of cashing in on tourism, we are looking inside our country and trying to seek out what is unique, what is endemic. Once we identify these assets, we then create them into immersive experiences for travellers.
“We apply this philosophy over the entire range of intangible heritage, cultural assets, conservation works, and nature – our mountains, lakes and waterfalls – everything.”
“During the past one and a half years or so, global travel paradigm has shifted – at least for the time being. What we see is a move from big, mass events to individual requests for cottages, standalone properties, remote countryside dwellings. In essence, sustainable tourism and responsible development are the need of the hour and this is what we have been doing all along.”
Currently, citizens and permanent residents of 42 countries can travel to Azerbaijan by air, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. With restored connection via the Azerbaijani Airlines, Flydubai, Air Arabia and Qatar Airways, passengers aged over 18 can now fly to Azerbaijan, submitting both a COVID passport (an official document issued by the relevant country on complete vaccination or recovery from COVID-19) and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before the flight, while for minors only the latter needs to be provided within the indicated period of time.
In 2019, 10,472 travellers from Qatar visited Azerbaijan. Some 10,399 Qatar citizens received e-visas to Azerbaijan, which was a substantial increase of 50.3 per cent in comparison with 2018.
“In Jan to Feb period of 2020, just prior to the pandemic, 15,000 travellers from Qatar had already visited Azerbaijan. In 2019, visitors from Qatar were also among the ones spending the most – around $1,530 per person.”
Thanks to the country’s geographical location along the ancient Silk Road, every region has its own culinary heritage and unique produce, which together provide the foundation for the rich flavours of Azerbaijani cuisine. By combining travel with first-hand culinary experiences with farmers, shepherds, butchers and bakers, travellers are encouraged to help preserve gastronomic traditions and local ingredients that may otherwise be on the brink of extinction.
One such experience offers travellers keen to discover this side of Azerbaijan the chance to stay overnight at rural guesthouses and help with seasonal activities, such as seeding, planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing and packaging, and be rewarded with the opportunity to cook and taste the fruits of their labour as well.
ATB has also recently introduced the national Ark of Taste menu, which was created as part of an EU-funded project to promote Slow Food. The menu offers a unique celebration of the traditional cuisine by supporting local farmers and food producers to safeguard native ingredients and techniques, such as the production of mountain honey, the Madrasa grape, hazelnuts, rosehip syrup, and dairy products made from buffalo milk.
“We are promoting pleasant and easy hikes around our natural assets of the Great Caucasus. We are putting nature up on stage. Azerbaijan is one of the world’s top three bird watching destinations. We have mud volcanos – our mud volcano centre will open in summer of 2022.”
Azerbaijan has almost every kind of geography to explore. Highlights include:
Hiking in pristine nature – with around 150 kilometres of marked hiking trails connecting remote mountain villages and passing through lush forests, waterfalls and lakes in the Caucasus mountains, it is now easier than ever to hike, cycle, and camp in these landscapes and travel between them.
Birdwatching – with around 400 recorded species of birds, Azerbaijan has established itself as a leading birdwatching destination. There are magnificent sites in the Caucasus Mountains for birdwatching, and there has been particular focus on preserving and developing the Beshbarmag State Reserve, northwest of Baku, to help protect and keep track of the area’s bird population and serve as a birdwatchers’ hub.
Winter activities – travellers looking for a fairy-tale destination this festive season, should look no further than Shahdag in Gusar, Tufandag in Gabala and Agbulag in Nakhchivan for a real taste of winter, while adrenalin-seekers will love the choice of activities available on land and in the air, including skiing, snowmobiling, paragliding and quad tours.
Along with abundant opportunities for nature-focused activities, travellers also have a chance to develop a deeper appreciation for the country by sampling a variety of wellness experiences that harness the restorative effects of nature itself.
Salt therapy – said to have positive effects on a variety of ailments including asthma and allergies, as well as having benefits for aging skin, one of the most impressive places to experience traditional salt therapy is Duzdag, or ‘Salt Mountain’ in Nakhchivan. The former salt mine is made up of a complex of tunnels burrowed 300 meters into the mountain which is thought to contain 130 million tons of the purest natural salt in the world.
Now part of the Duzdag Physiotherapy Center, guests can stay overnight in one of the Center’s subterranean rooms, enjoying not only the restorative powers of the salt, but solitude and peace of mind.
Thermal baths and springs – since ancient times, locals in Azerbaijan’s south-eastern region have turned to thermal water springs for their health. Known as “istisu”, bathing in the mineral-rich water – or even drinking it – is a common pastime in Lankaran, Gabala, and the Karabakh region, where it is revered for its rejuvenating qualities and used to treat numerous conditions.
With over 30 hot and cold mineral water springs to be found across the Greater Caucasus Mountains – each one offering health-seekers distinct concentrations of minerals and organic substances – there are plenty of opportunities to bask in soothing formal treatments while enjoying unbeatable views of some of Azerbaijan’s great natural attractions.
The oil of Naftalan – used for therapeutic purposes going back as far as the 12th century, the unique composition of Naftalan oil has helped turn the town of Naftalan into one of Azerbaijan’s leading health tourism destinations.
According to local folklore, the oil’s healing properties were first discovered by a Silk Road merchant who left one of his sickly camels by a pool of Naftalan oil and later returned to find it fully recovered. Today, it is believed to possess natural anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antihistamine properties, and can be used to treat more than 70 different ailments from skin conditions and problems related to the nervous system to stress and fatigue.
From World Heritage sites to amazing architecture, there is so much history and culture to explore in Azerbaijan. There is no better way to discover the cultural heart of the capital city Baku than with a specially-curated walking tour to the its medieval core – UNESCO-protected Old City with Maiden Tower and Shirvanshahs’ Palace.
The unique history and culture of Azerbaijan, home to some of the earliest civilisations, have also been enriched by the constant stream of travellers passing through along the great Silk Road. One of the locations where their traces can be clearly seen is the Ateshgah Fire Temple, which was built around naturally burning fires previously worshipped by Zoroastrians. Adopted by Hindu merchants trading in nearby Baku, the temple was an important place of pilgrimage for fire worshippers until the 1880s.
Another visible trace of the Silk Road is the city of Sheki, whose historic centre is Azerbaijan’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to its local traditions of craftsmanship, which date back centuries, Sheki is also part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. “Shaki is a great place to visit – it has beautiful hotels, perfect restaurants, bazaars, you can visit silk workshops where the silk yarn is produced and weaved, where the print is applied. There is a walled area with the Khan palace, with its beautiful colourful windows, various museums and workshops. About 5km away from Sheki is a mountain village called Kiş.”
There is one more route to track in Azerbaijan to explore its cultural heritage. One of the most recent inspiring destinations in Azerbaijan is Shusha – home to many Azerbaijani composers, musicians, and poets, as well as one of the leading schools of mugham, a traditional genre of vocal and instrumental arts. It is also known for its carpet-weaving traditions and was the centre of the renowned Karabakh carpet school.
* Azerbaijan Tourism Board will be participating in Qatar Travel Mart 2021
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