Palmer's Lunch, Byesville Ohio Barnes Foundation Gallery pie Campers, Zanskar River
Heydar Aliyav Center exterior

Azerbaijan is Ready for Mass Tourism, Almost

carpet museum

Baku’s latest pride and joy, the Carpet Museum

TL:DR? They’re working on it. They have all the components, but the people putting the engine together need more training and new tools.

It was after 7pm on a Monday night when I received the email inviting me to a press trip in Azerbaijan, barely three weeks away. The invitation was so odd, with its ongoing late night infomercial but-wait-there’s-more tone, that I had to read it twice to be sure it wasn’t extremely well targeted spam. The capper of this hard-sell invite was the equally hilarious and sad line, “Best of all, it is one of the few locations in that region free from any religious strife!” There wasn’t an exclamation point in the actual email, but it was implied.

Though my history with press trips has been spotty, I was intrigued by the destination. Azerbaijan was in an entirely new realm for me – kind of Central Asia, kind of the Middle East — though the people there insist they are in fact the gateway from Europe to Asia. Europe agrees, apparently, because Azerbaijan participates in the Eurovision Song Contest, even hosting the event in 2012 per tradition after their 2011 win, and will host the 2015 Euro Games

The most discouraging/frightening part was the schedule. I’d be flying across 10 time zones, more than 25 hours in transit each way, for barely three days on the ground ,then flying right home. My request to fly in early or stay late was denied without explanation. My ass ached just thinking about it. But like many travel writers, my curiosity about the unknown is far more powerful than my self-preservation instincts, so I agreed to go.

Azerbaijan, about the size of Maine, bordered by such strife-y countries as Iran, Georgia, Armenia and the wild card that is Russia, lives off of one giant export: oil. But like the Norwegians and the Saudis, Azerbaijan must be thinking long term about the day when the oil fields go dry and they have precious little else to fall back on apart from modest agriculture. Thus their renewed investment in tourism and raising their destination profile by hosting events like the Euro Games and the Baku Challenge, a Formula 1 car race that coincided with my visit and, by the way, the people bankrolling the whole press trip.

Azerbaijan was formerly a popular tourism destination within the USSR in the 1980s, but the fall of the Soviet Union and the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia in the 90s put a stop to that. Tourism numbers are climbing again, but are still a fraction of what they once were and presumably could be.

The first morning of the press trip was, I must admit, not my best day. I’d arrived at the hotel at about 11:00 the previous night, punchy and limping after over 28 hours in transit from Minneapolis. My desperately needed nine hours of sleep that night was interrupted twice: once when the front desk called well after midnight, 15 minutes after I’d descended into melatonin oblivion, to ask me about my visa and again at 3:30am when a member of the staff tried to barge into my room without knocking for reasons that the front desk was never able to explain after my complaints. (I was provided with a plate of fruit, sweets and cookies as an apology.) Fortunately, I had the bolt closed, so I didn’t have to deal with a stranger through a haze of exhaustion and melatonin while standing in my underwear, but the noise, shock and confusion kept me up for nearly an hour. Suffice to say, I was a crabby, foggy mess.

First thing, we were ushered into the hotel’s ballroom for a presentation by members from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Tourism. I was devoting so much concentration to appearing alert and attentive that I wasn’t doing a good job of absorbing the actual presentation itself. This wasn’t entirely my fault.

The bulk of the presentation was done by a deadpan PR woman who remained seated the entire time, head down, her microphone picking up almost nothing, reading off a piece of paper while clicking through a PowerPoint presentation written in Comic Sans. All she needed was to rip a fart to earn Public Speaking Fail Yahtzee. Her accent was often indecipherable and I later realized that she couldn’t truly speak English, she was just reading verbatim from a speech apparently prepared by someone else that actually spoke English. I wondered why they simply didn’t allow that person to deliver the presentation, just for the sake of clarity.

Azerbaijan tourism representatives

Azerbaijan tourism representatives

There were lots of platitudes and buzz words, but few specifics about Azerbaijan’s tourist attractions, including a token mention of eco-tourism without any elaboration, and some confusing statistics about a new ski resort “among the best in Europe,” again, without elaboration, which may or may not be open already. We were never able to get a definitive answer.

Then a bored-looking “representative” of the tourism ministry gave a short speech, making a point of touting Baku’s new Carpet Museum, like pretty much everyone else we encountered on the trip. (They’re very proud, and, as I learned later, rightfully so.) He was also barely comprehensible, speaking a full foot from his mic in a low voice that I could scarcely hear from the second row, and wearing the grim face of a guy delivering bad news about surgery.

Then the floor was open for questions, which were translated to our non-English-speaking international tourism representatives by an interpreter. Someone tried to get clarification about the ski resort. There was a question about when/how the challenging e-visa application and letter of invitation rigmarole might be made simpler and more accessible to independent tourists. Someone asked about Baku’s notorious traffic gridlock and how this will affect the 2015 Euro Games. (Paraphrased answer: “The government will fix it.”)

In my delirium, wanting to seem engaged, I grabbed the mic and in unintentionally aggressive phrasing asked about the Mercer Health and Sanitation report I’d stumbled on that rated Baku as the most polluted city in the world, beating legendary dirt pits like Mumbai, Bagdad and Port au Prince, Haiti. The ministry representative dodged the question by simply inviting me to walk around and see for myself how clean the city was. Problem solved! In your face, Mercer.

After repeated dodges of difficult questions, vague answers to others, and the overall lifeless presentation about the infinite wonders of their country (our hosts only cracked a small smile once throughout the entire presentation), it became clear to me that Azerbaijan’s aspirations for serious tourism probably won’t be fulfilled until they hire some PR pros to at least handle these press events, if not guide their entire marketing strategy. Someone who will stand up and speak animatedly in front of 40 journalists from around the world. Someone that can provide direct answers, or at least deflect with creative spin. Someone that can communicate in English clearly, not only for appearances and accuracy, but for the sake of the pained-looking French, Czech, Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and other non-native English speakers in the room who clearly weren’t getting much from the presentation and whose notes were probably limited to “Comic Sans, LOL!”

Indeed, this baffling lost-in-translation scene was repeated throughout the trip. Rather than hire up-beat guides with English skills at least equal to the average Baku coffee shop barista, who spoke excellent English, we were mostly led around by barking drill sergeants with impenetrable Russian accents who’d lived through the worst of the USSR period and were therefore prone to long, bitter digressions about how the Russians and Armenians were to blame for everything wrong with Azerbaijan.

I say all this discouraging stuff out of the gate to 1) get it out of the way and 2) so you too can feel as frustrated as I did when I happened upon one wonderful thing after another in Baku and concluded that Azerbaijan deserves better representation. It ain’t San Francisco, but it can definitely hold its own in a comparison to a lot of cities in Europe, particularly east of Vienna, and no one will be the wiser while these mumbling, comatose bureaucrats are in charge of selling it.

§

Despite being promised that our group of 40 journalists and photographers would be split into more manageable groups of 10, we were all immediately loaded en masse onto a bus and yelled at by the first of our drill sergeant guides as we careened toward the Azerbaijan National History Museum.

And I really mean it when I say “careened”. The driver took his orders to get us there as fast as possible very seriously, wrenching the bus around corners and weaving between traffic like a rally car driver. When we hit Baku’s infamous traffic gridlock, every non-Azerbaijani on the bus gasped and clawed for something to hang onto as the driver went over the center line and headed straight into oncoming traffic, which, thankfully, swerved to avoid us. Noticing that he’d lost his audience, our guide assured us this driving maneuver isn’t all that unusual in Azerbaijan, but this reassurance did little to calm the 40 over-tired foreigners on board.

Indeed, the labor and resources used to paint traffic lanes on the streets of Baku were a complete waste. Lanes were meaningless. Cars just zoomed along wherever there was space. In fact, I’m pretty sure some people were intentionally driving their cars centered on the paint out of spite.

We were led through the National History Museum at something approaching a moderate jog. This pace and our guide’s accent — deteriorating due to his auctioneer speaking speed — made absorbing anything virtually impossible. I abandoned any effort at taking notes or taking more than a glancing look at most items, lest I be left behind. The museum, opened in 1921 in one of central Baku’s gorgeous neo-Baroque buildings, is a bit dated at times, but it’s certainly rich with material from prehistoric history to the near-present and meticulous in its signage printed in Azerbiajani, Russian and English. Our guide apologized for the ridiculous pace, saying it was critical we stay on schedule, but we could have a more thorough visit the next time we were in Azerbaijan.

National History Museum

National History Museum of Azerbaijan, taken while at a slow jog

This sentiment was expressed repeatedly during the trip. We could spend more time, see more, learn more the next time we came to Azerbaijan. I wondered how many people in my group would ever return? Or how they would do justice to Azerbaijan in their articles after this truncated visit? Why fly in 40 journalists only to not let them absorb the attractions?

Another hair-raising ride on the bus took us to lunch, where, again, we were in such a rush the photographers only managed a few pictures of the food. That 40-something people were being attended to by just two servers did not help matters. Food was set down and taken away in mere minutes. I became a blur of eating efficiency, swallowing twice chewed mouthfuls like a duck, in my effort to get a taste of everything and also get enough calories to get me to dinner.

§

We roared to the wonderfully trippy Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid. I’m happy to report that things improved from here. The Center is just fantastic, inside and out, reminiscent of a partially collapsed blanket fort. Among other things to ogle, there’s another Azerbaijan history museum inside focusing on 20th century history, laid out like a modern art installation.

Heydar Aliyav Center exterior

Heydar Aliyav Center exterior

Heydar Aliyav Center interior

Heydar Aliyav Center interior

Flame Towers at night

Flame Towers at Night

The pace mercifully slowed for the remainder of the day. We saw a variety of Baku’s impressive and tasteful architecture, including the Flame Towers and the new, surprisingly captivating Carpet Museum, which resembles a half rolled-up carpet. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a public building in Baku built in the past five years that has more than a couple 90-dgree angles. They seem infatuated with curves, waves, and exterior LED lights.

It was during our tour of the historic center that evening, parts of which date back to the 12th century, conducted at a pleasant, normal human walking pace, when I concluded that Baku was never going to be “the next Dubai,” a phrase that’s been worryingly well circulated. There’s certainly the expected wretched excess of an oil center, but there’s also legitimate ancient history here, complimented by all those classic neo-Baroque buildings in the city center and thoughtful modern architecture sprouting up everywhere. Compound those enticements with nightlife that my pals at Lonely Planet have rated as among the best in the world, and a metro system to bypass some of that heinous traffic, and you really could do a lot worse than a week in Baku.

friendly kitty

Friendly local… kitty

Alas, there are a few kinks to work out before independent travelers start arriving in measurable numbers, namely that demoralizing e-visa and invitation letter process, the scarcity of hotels below four stars, and their treasured historic center, a UNESCO Heritage site classified as “in danger” due to a baffling combination of neglect and dubious restoration efforts that have left some ancient structures looking almost like new. Strange as it was to read, it behooves me to add that my email invite to the press trip was on point about the strife-less atmosphere. Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Muslim, with several religious minorities going about their business here unmolested. And with the country being surrounded by a whole lot of places your mother would prefer you don’t visit, the vibe here is surprisingly cool and friendly. Sure, corruption is rampant, the president is positioning himself to serve at the post for life and there was a pretty unpleasant dust up with the harassment and detainment of local journalists earlier this year, but if you’re looking to explore the region relatively worry-free, this is the place to go.

fountain with Baku city wall in background

Fountain with Baku city wall in background

§

In a rather unexpected twist, the trip organizers didn’t have any problem with people skipping parts of the schedule to wander on their own. This is almost unheard of on press trips. So, the next day I declined a tour of the Euro Games facilities and watching Formula 1 cars race in circles and instead crisscrossed the city alone on foot, taking pictures of the historic center’s city walls, the 12th century Maiden’s Tower, the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the 14th and 15th century caravansaries now operating as restaurants, the (free!) miniature book museum, said to be the only one of its kind in the world, and all the windy, tight streets and alleys.

caravansari

A 15th century caravansary, now serving as a restaurant.

Maiden's Tower

Maiden’s Tower

I made my way to the “New Bazaar” north of the historic center where I haggled for what was the most expensive food item I’ve ever purchased: a container of “illegal” beluga caviar, straight from (hopefully clean part of) the Caspian Sea. I don’t know what made it illegal. The sale of the stuff was happening right out in the open. On the advice of friends, I also paid a visit to Gulluoglu Bakery, in business since 1871, where I was promised I’d eat the “best baklava on the planet.” I have yet to eat all the baklava on the planet, but I can confirm that the stuff Gulluoglu makes is amazing. I gobbled half of it down, before I thought to take a picture. Our final day in Azerbaijan had only one item on the schedule: visiting the Gobustand National Park and Museum. The park has cave carvings believed to be 5,000 years old. We noted that some of the carvings looked suspiciously fresh, but we were assured that the age of the carvings had been confirmed by “expensive Japanese equipment.” So, definitely legit, I guess.

cave carving of people and ship cave carving of goat cave carvings of bulls

But before that contemplative excitement, we had to suffer through one last tour/lecture in the museum from a guy that spoke English about as clearly as New York subway announcer. Not satisfied to simply tell us about the history of the park, he also went into great detail on pedantic subjects like Azerbaijani fruit, farm animals, various dishes, tea, some Georgian history (I think he was running out of material) and finally treated us to an impassioned speech on what tap dancing dicks the Russians were during Soviet times. I don’t doubt that this is true, but I think this was the wrong time and audience for that diatribe.

The pace and the scheduling insanity of the trip continued right to the very end, when I had to get up at 1:00 am to be at the airport for a 5:00 am flight home. Six days later, as I write this, my body is just getting back to normal from all that economy class sitting.

The quiet desperation of Azerbaijan’s tourism aspirations is all too familiar to me. Romania, where I’ve lived and researched a number of Lonely Planet guidebooks, has struggled for years to attract the tourism they, from my perspective, richly deserve. They just can’t seem to find the marketing savvy to do it properly or, in extreme cases, not hilariously. I also think of Moldova, another of my Lonely Planet research areas, who have far fewer natural attractions to work with than Romania, but seem to have a bit more aptitude for putting on press trips, as I learned during an agreeable, wine-soaked trip in 2013. Perhaps the two countries should join forces.

But back to Azerbaijan. They’re clearly in it to win it and they have the cash and resources to make it happen. Triumph, or at least an upward spike towards triumph, is so close, so attainable. Direct flights from New York to Baku will be starting soon, with (allegedly) visa-on-arrival service. More two and three star hotels and even hostels are being planned. And did I mention the food? It’s all lamb, mutton, chicken, vegetables (pureed and whole), sauces, bread, cheese and that sweet, sweet baklava. When consumed at a normal pace, it’s pretty great. Independent travel trailblazers, now’s the time to go to Azerbaijan. Plan ahead to snag a room in one of the scant three-star hotels in the historic center and brace for medium-caliber bureaucracy with the visa application. Travelers that prefer not to make vacation planning a temporary part time job, give Azerbaijan a couple years. It’ll only get better.

Leif Pettersen (leifpettersen.com) is a freelance travel writer, humorist and silver medalist at the 2014 International Jugglers’ Association championships (youtube.com). He’s visited 53 countries (so far) and tweets at @leifpettersen.

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