SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan — At a cost of $580 million, the Silk Road Samarkand Tourist Complex is a testament to Uzbekistan’s ambitious goal of drawing millions more tourists, including key Chinese visitors, to the Central Asian nation. The 260-hectare compound is a new attraction in Samarkand, an ancient city known for its mosques and buildings adorned with colorful mosaic tiles. Samarkand sits on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that once connected Asia to the Mediterranean.
Opened last year, the complex offers eight luxury hotels, 35 restaurants, a conference center and other facilities targeted at vacationers and business travelers. But with few direct flights and most visitors spending just one day in the city, Uzbekistan’s bid to turn it into a world-class tourist destination faces serious challenges. There is “insufficient awareness of tourists about the new tourism opportunities offered by Samarkand,” said the complex’s marketing and PR director, Dinara Akhmetova.
During Uzbekistan’s first quarter century after independence in 1991, the ex-Soviet state of 36 million people was relatively closed to foreign tourists under its late leader, Islam Karimov. Following Karimov’s death in 2016, his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, reelected this week to a third term, ushered in political, economic and tourism reforms. Central Asia’s most populous state drew more than 5.2 million visitors and $1.6 billion in tourism revenue last year, according to Uzbektourism.
Its neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were the top three inbound tourism contributors, respectively. Russia ranked fifth, while China and Japan did not make the top 10. But Uzbekistan’s first deputy minister of culture and tourism, Ulugbek Azamov, aims to hit the 10 million tourist mark in the next two or three years. Key to that effort will be diversifying the industry and developing sustainable options such as ecotourism and rural travel, with tours to remote mountain villages, he said, adding that he hoped the push would boost the economy and create thousands of new jobs.
“You want to see the traditions and participate in everyday life of [local] people,” Azamov said of the diversification strategy during a video interview after a government-funded media excursion. Sophie Ibbotson, founder of tourism development and PR consultancy Maximum Exposure, said she hoped “to see a shift in thinking in the government to focus more about what tourism can deliver for Uzbekistan,” rather than just relying on yearly tourist arrivals as a success metric.
“In terms of looking at the value of tourism to the economy, we need to focus on those higher-spending tourists,” she told Nikkei Asia, referring to visitors who spend $1,000 to $1,500 on a one or two-week trip. “[They’re] much more useful and valuable to the local economy.” Ibbotson, who is Uzbekistan’s tourism ambassador to the United Kingdom, said the country’s Central Asian neighbors were “not the priorities.” People from China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Middle East and Europe are seen as “higher-spending tourists.”
Key to attracting well-heeled Chinese visitors could be the Minyoun Hospitality hotel chain. The Silk Road by Minyoun features restaurants that offer Chinese cuisine and cultural events. Tourism to Uzbekistan has expanded about fivefold over the last few years, and the country could see 7 million visitors and $2 billion in tourism-linked earnings annually by 2025, said Bobur Sobirov, an economics lecturer at the Samarkand branch of Tashkent State University of Economics.
But he added that a serious effort to boost the industry means overcoming big hurdles, including “poor transportation, payment systems, a lack of suitable hotels, medical services, language assistance and tourist information.” Back at the Silk Road complex, local university dean Dorota Sylwia Majewicz said she enjoyed the compound’s myriad offerings. “We usually come here to enjoy music, to come for spa,” said Majewicz, who hails from Poland. “This [place] is something different that helps you grasp the idea about the history of Samarkand.”
Source: NIKKEI Asia