Uzbekistan touts Silk Road past in bid for tourist boom

 Thursday, July 6, 2023

After decades of international isolation, Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority country of more than 36 million people, is seeking to develop its tourism industry, hoping to capitalise on its heritage as a node on the Silk Road.

Like the cities of Samarkand and Khiva, Bukhara is located at the heart of the web of ancient trade routes that connected Europe with China for a 1,500-year span until the mid-15th century.

Uzbekistan has made “commendable progress” in preserving its Silk Road heritage, said Sara Noshadi, the UNESCO representative to Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken steps to open up the former Soviet state since taking office in 2016, following the death of strongman leader Islam Karimov, who kept the country largely off limits to foreigners.

Among other moves, Mirziyoyev’s administration abolished visa requirements for citizens from more than 90 countries and scrapped rules requiring foreign visitors to report their whereabouts to authorities.

The government of Central Asia’s most populous country has allocated about $17.8m for tourism development from 2024 to 2025.

In May, Uzbekistan signed a deal with Singapore’s Changi Airport to jointly develop the existing Tashkent International Airport in the capital, the main gateway for arrivals to the country.

Sophie Ibbotson, Uzbekistan’s tourism ambassador to the United Kingdom since 2019, said the country’s efforts to attract investment and tourism have borne fruit in recent years.

International hotel chains like Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental now have a presence in the country, while airlines such as Turkish Airlines and Flydubai compete with the formerly monopolistic Uzbekistan Airways, Ibbotson said.

Still, Uzbekistan faces a tough road to developing a thriving tourism market. Tourist arrivals remain modest by international standards.

The country attracted 5.2 million visitors in 2022 – the majority of them from neighbouring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan only about one-tenth of the number drawn by countries like Turkey and Italy.

Infrastructure is a particular challenge.

Michael Shamshidov, the co-founder of Samarkand Tourism Forum in the capital Tashkent, said a lack of accommodations was among the “bottlenecks” facing the sector.

According to Uzbek tourism figures, the republic had 1,193 accommodations including 51 starred hotels with 72,336 beds as of May 2023.

Shamshidov said Uzbekistan is still lacking “one big strategy” for sustainable tourism development.

Ibbotson, the tourism ambassador, said the government lacked a sense of coordination and long-term planning. There is still a big lack of capacity within government and the private sector, Ibbotson said.

Even so, visitors are on the rise as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes from the public consciousness which is good news for many locals who work in tourism-dependent businesses.

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