Uzbekistan announces ambition to become major tourist destination

The opening of the First International Investment Forum in Tourism in Tashkent, on 19 November 2018. [Georgi Gotev]

Uzbek officials and foreign guests issued a clear message on Monday (19 November) that developing tourism has become a major priority for Uzbekistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia with great landscapes and a very rich historical heritage.

A two-day International Investment Forum in Tourism opened in Tashkent on Monday, with business representatives from 48 countries and 30 international media outlets.

The forum, first of its kind, brings together the international business community with government leaders and representatives of the country’s 12 regions, with many projects on offer, from roads or railroads to hotels and amusement parks. (A new post has been created in all regions, with a deputy governor responsible for developing tourism.)

The forum is yet another illustration of the country’s efforts to open up in the last two years, since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over as president after the death of autocratic leader Islam Karimov.

‘Central Asia Spring' hailed after Uzbekistan changed leadership

A leading MEP said on Tuesday (28 November) that regional cooperation in Central Asia was benefitting from “a new beginning” thanks to democratisation in Uzbekistan flowing the death of its first leader Islam Karimov in 2016.

Uzbekistan and Lichtenstein are the only two double-landlocked countries in the world, bordered as they are by landlocked countries.

Perhaps for these reasons, Uzbekistan has recently put a strong emphasis on developing its air fleet, in part by acquiring Boeing’s Dreamliner long-haul aircraft, and high-speed train connections, including to Samarkand, an ancient city that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Unlike neighbour Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is not so rich in natural resources. Agriculture, notably cotton production, has long been a leading sector in the economy. In this context, developing tourism appears to be a major national priority.

Hospitality and security is an asset Uzbekistan is obviously trying to leverage. Expatriates told EURACTIV they were feeling absolutely secure everywhere in the country, including in bars and nightclubs. They also praised Uzbek society, where Islam is the predominant religion, for being open-minded and tolerant to other cultures.

In the last two years, the country took many steps to make it easier for visitors to come. The visa requirement for nationals of 18 countries was lifted (the only EU country on this list is France), and the issuing of visas for foreigners was greatly simplified, with well-functioning online facilities.

Hidden gem

As Deputy Prime Minister Aziz Abdukhakimov announced, as a result of the hard work, the number of visitors to the country doubled in 2018 to reach 5.1 million. He said that local authorities had 500 investment projects on offer which benefitted from easier procedures for acquiring plots of land and simplified procedures in terms of red tape.

Abdukhakimov stressed that foreign investors had “unprecedented opportunities” to become pioneers in discovering a “hidden gem” and take part in a boom of “unprecedented dimensions and ambition”, with an expected double-digit growth in years to come.

Alkis Drakinos, the head of the EBRD office in Uzbekistan, praised the country for being one of the safest in the world, having “fantastic monuments”, “fascinating cuisine”, good prices, a kind population and good weather (300 days of sunshine per year), allowing tourism around the year. “This is the right time to visit Uzbekistan”, he said.

Drakinos said the EBRD experience in Uzbekistan started when Mirziyoyev became president in 2016 and the country opened both to its neighbours and foreign investors. He praised the “very successful currency liberalisation”, trade liberalization, the simplified regulations, the introduction of the office of a business ombudsman and of e-governance, more connectivity, all reforms remarkably “happening at the same time”.

EBRD is one of the largest investors in Central Asia, Drakinos said, having invested more than $11 billion in the last 25 years.

EBRD is proud of having started in Uzbekistan the “Cultural Heritage Framework”, a $300 million investment in technical assistance, to advise local authorities on cultural heritage preservation, for preserving and maintaining sites such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, and develop the necessary tourism infrastructure.

“[Since 2016] reforms have been happening, we are here to support you”, he told the audience.

Taleb Rifai, representing the International Institute for Peace through Tourism, lauded Uzbekistan’s rich cultural heritage.

“Just close your eyes and imagine this country, which was the world’s Silicon Valley 800 years ago,” Rifai said. Among other historic personalities, he mentioned the name of Ulugh Beg, a local ruler and astronomer who, in his words, identified one-third of the stars known in modern times.

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