After seeing much of Europe and countless beaches in Southeast Asia, Dmitry and Irina Dagbayev thought they might try something different for their next holiday.
“This time we decided on Uzbekistan, so as to see Samarkand and Bukhara,” said Dmitry Dagbayev, a retail entrepreneur from Ulan-Ude in Russia.
As soon as they arrived at Tashkent airport in March, the Dagbayevs felt they had made a mistake. “Our first impression wasn’t very positive. In the airport, it turned out that you have to declare every single thing you have — down to your money and telephone,” Dagbayev told EurasiaNet.org. “The whole process took 30 minutes, which is too much.”
They got off lightly.
Many tell of property and cash getting confiscated and of enduring lengthy and intimidating bouts of questioning. In some nightmare cases, unwitting travelers have been thrown into jail for trying to enter the country with pain-relief medicines containing codeine, which is illegal in Uzbekistan.
Such unhappy independent travel experiences in Uzbekistan are legion, and they all too often start right at the border.
Recognizing the systemic problems, newly elected President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has ordered an overhaul of the sector, which the government wants to develop into a strategic component of the economy. In the most eye-catching reform to date, visa requirements are to be waived for citizens of dozens of countries starting in April.
The aim of turning Uzbekistan into a tourist magnet is not unrealistic. The country, after all, has lots of attractions.
“Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara and the Ferghana valley are some of the finest jewels of the Silk Roads,” said historian Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of The World, published in 2015. “The magnet of Uzbekistan is extremely strong, and if there is continued investment in infrastructure — roads, travel, hotels, restaurants — then the next decade could be very rosy. Much depends on how this growth is managed within the country.”
Beyond the best-known draws, there is also the more esoteric appeal of a ship graveyard created by the retreat of the Aral Sea, as well as a museum of Soviet-era avant-garde art in Nukus.
Yet for all that, tourism remains a sorely underperforming sector.
The London-based World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that the total contribution of tourism to Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product in 2015 stood at a meager 3.2 percent. The WTTC’s projections see the value of tourism increasing in cash terms by 2026, but still remaining stagnant in proportional impact terms, at 3 percent of GDP. Also in 2015, the WTTC estimates that travel and tourism in Uzbekistan contributed to creating, directly and indirectly, 439,000 jobs, or 2.8 percent of total employment.
The new visa rules have been widely hailed as a good start.
Taking a leaf out of Kyrgyzstan’s book, Uzbekistan will from April 1 waive visa requirements for citizens of 15 nations — Austria, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Citizens of another 12 countries — Belgium, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, the United States, France, Vietnam, Israel, Poland, Hungary, Portugal and the Czech Republic — will also be granted visa-free travel provided they are 55 years and over. Those aged under 55 will be able to get a visa on arrival for a payment of $50.
That age-limit for some countries has many tour operators scratching their heads.
“Most tourists coming to us are aged between 50 and 60. This is getting to retirement age and I guess they don’t need to be subjected to [security] checks. Maybe that is how they came up with that age,” said Aziz Nishanov, a sales manager at Tashkent tourism company Sarbon Tour.
Several other logistic obstacles must be overcome before tourism can take off, however. Sardor Yahyayev, a manager at a tourist agency in Samarkand, said the costs of traveling to Uzbekistan need to be brought down. “Tourists from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany complain that tickets for Uzbekistan Airlines are very expensive,” Yahyayev said.
And then there is the quality of basic infrastructure. “The roads are terrible. Also, tourists need clean toilets. But the main thing is that without a regular supply of gas and electricity, tourism is unthinkable,” Yahyayev told EurasiaNet.org.
Sardor recalled how in the past year, a group of tourists from Germany and France were so angered by incessant power cuts to their hotel in Samarkand that he was forced to pay a $2,000 compensation package to his commercial partner in Europe.
Steve Hermans, founder of the Caravanistan travel blog, echoed these points, noting that there is a shortage of small and inexpensive hotels and hostels. “The main pain point is accommodation. For the cyclists, there’s just not enough … in small towns. In the Ferghana Valley, there’s really little budget accommodation,” Hermans said.
Uzbekistan, with its heritage tourism, is distinct from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which attract the hiking and adventure-oriented crowd. As such, Uzbekistan stands to develop greater interest among older and monied visitors. And it is that sector of tourist – at the high end – which is sorely underserved at the moment.
“People who have lots of money but little time, who want to stay in a nice place, this is also an issue,” Hermans said. “Already now for Samarkand and Bukhara, it’s a problem to get something decent. In high season, you have to book far in advance. If more people start coming, they really need to start building new hotels, which is not an issue for the Uzbeks, because they love to build.”
Economist Yuily Yusupov, who has taken part in a few tourism-development projects, noted that Uzbekistan also needs to broaden its appeal.
“Tourists quickly get bored with the standard offerings of our historical sightseeing, the four Ms: minarets, mausoleums, mosques and madrassas. They want to relax in the evening in a beautiful restaurant, dance, watch some shows,” Yusupov said. “Unfortunately, the requisite infrastructure and entertainment industry in Uzbekistan is not, to put it mildly, very developed.”
Addressing this issue touches on much broader deficiencies to do with the state of Uzbekistan’s investment climate, which is hindered by corruption and bureaucratic inertia. Yusupov argued that the next reform phase should involve the rollback of government regulation of the sector.
That will be among the primary tasks of the freshly created State Committee for the Development of Tourism, another Mirziyoyev novelty. The committee is basically the reincarnation of Uzbektourism, the old state company that oversaw the sector, with slightly enhanced responsibilities. This new body will be tasked with licensing tour agencies and hotels, promoting tourism and training personnel in the sector.
Personnel training would seem to be the top priority. Asked by a EurasiaNet.org reporter about the exact number of leisure tourists visiting Uzbekistan, a press officer with the committee was unable to provide an answer. “You would be better off quoting figures off the internet. Uzbektourism doesn’t have that kind of data,” the press officer said.