Last year, global tourism was on the rise, with a record-breaking 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). This was 4 percent more than the overall tourist influx in 2018.
While France remained to be the world’s most visited country — with 90 million arrivals last year — some of the Caspian region’s countries, including Iran, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan ranked in the top 20 with the highest jump in visitor numbers year-on-year as demand for unconventional destinations grows. Russia and Turkmenistan were not included in the top 20.
Last year, trips to Iran rose by 27.9 percent, according to the latest statistics from the UNWTO. As of the previous fiscal year, which ended on March 20, 2019, Iran welcomed around 7.8 million tourists, of which a vast majority came from neighboring countries. According to data compiled by Iran’s Central Bank, the country’s tourism industry contributed $11.8 billion to the country’s GDP in the same period.
While tourism officials in Iran are optimistic about increasing global visitor interest to 20 million by 2025, some believe the country is likely to suffer a drop in visitors' number following the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani late last year and a plane crash that killed all 176 people on board.
At the same time, many governments have already added Iran to their list of places to not travel, including the U.S. State Department. On December 26, 2019, Washington issued ‘‘do not travel’’ advisory for Iran, saying that ‘‘the U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iran.’’
“These events are a major blow to tourism, but we will leave it behind by the means of new plans and we will definitely return to normal,” said Ali-Asghar Mounesan, Iran’s tourism minister, according to a report by Tehran Times.
After the plane crash, Iran saw a 70 percent decrease in inbound tour packages, according to the country’s tourism ministry.
“70 percent drop is definitely a substantial figure. For [travelers from] some countries the drop is greater and for some lesser,” the minister said, adding that the country is working now to explore new travel markets in order to rebound.
Meanwhile, other trends saw Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan — the countries on the western and eastern shores of the Caspian Sea — increased in popularity.
According to the UNWTO, trips to Azerbaijan rose by 11.4 percent in 2019. Azerbaijan’s national tourism agency said the previous year was a record year for inbound tourism, with slightly more than three million tourist arrivals. At the same time, the tourist boom drove strong sales for local industries as visitors spent $2.53 billion over the past 12 months.
The surge in tourists last year coincided with a series of events, especially related to sports. Formula One car race held in Baku’s city center and known for its lineup of musical performances was among the country’s biggest events last year. Azerbaijan’s capital city also welcomed the final game of the UEFA Europa League and thousands of football (soccer) fans from all over the world.
Tourism officials in Azerbaijan predict that the number of visitors to the country will reach four million this year and say they are working to lure yet more tourists. The list of initiatives launched by the country’s authorities includes a tourist police service and multiple-entry, short-term tourist e-visas.
To develop the industry and make Azerbaijan a more attractive vacation destination, the government also announced they would set up visitor centers across Baku, where tourists can get necessary assistance and information about sites, food, and shopping. Tax incentives and subsidies for industry companies are also planned, including giving financial exemptions to foreign airlines.
Kazakhstan, in its turn, saw a 10 percent increase in incoming visitors as slightly more than nine million visited Central Asia’s largest country.
Kazakhstan’s tourism industry currently generates less than one percent, or about $1.44 billion, of the Caspian region country’s gross domestic product (GDP), with tourists from neighboring Uzbekistan making up the largest demographic. Authorities are already working to relax visa rules and develop infrastructure, to lure tourists from further afar and hoping to increase tourism revenue to $12 billion within the next five years.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan saw an increase in tourists from China, with 55,217 travelers in the first nine months of 2019 – an increase of nearly 35 percent from the same period of the previous year.
The situation, however, may change due to the new coronavirus, whose impact on travel to and from China has been devastating. The death toll from the monthlong coronavirus outbreak has continued to climb in China, rising to 910 as of Monday, Feb.10. Kazakhstan shut down its borders, cross-border ferries, and railways, as well as completely suspended air traffic with China. Some believe that depending on how long the restrictions and warnings are in place, losses for the global tourism industry could easily double those caused by the SARS outbreak in 2003.