Uzbekistan doubles down on attracting Middle East tourists

Uzbekistan doubles down on attracting Middle East tourists
Uzbekistan is focusing its efforts on attracting tourists from the Middle East in its latest push to expand the Central Asian country's tourism industry. / pexels
By bne IntelIiNews November 22, 2023

bne IntelliNews talked with tourism officials from Uzbekistan on the sidelines of the recent World Travel Market (WTM) in London to discuss the Central Asian country's ongoing growth in visitors from the Middle East. In our first interview, we spoke with Negina Mukhtarova of promotional body Rocket DMC Uzbekistan. 

Markets of the Middle East present huge potential for the Uzbek economy due to historical links with the region. Recent travel and tourism developments in Samarkand and Bukhara, meanwhile, have included the emergence of new hotels and tourist attractions in cities that already boast centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

What is Uzbekistan Tourism planning for 2024/2025?

The president of Uzbekistan signed a decree to initiate marketing programmes and advertising campaigns in various foreign countries that will help position Uzbekistan as a must-visit destination, while simultaneously subsidising tourist companies and tourist activities.
Moreover, during the past couple of years, Samarkand region has seen a great transformation and hotel developments. It has also enhanced air flight connections and increased the number of flights to Samarkand where the airport has good logistical opportunities for foreign tourism.

What are the current trends in travel preferences among tourists from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that Uzbekistan can capitalise on?

The key is easy accessibility from the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] source markets, proximity and various landscapes and activities that Uzbekistan offers. At Rocket DMC Uzbekistan, we customise weekend travels to Tashkent and Samarkand. We leverage different activities in different seasons in the country, such as skiing in winter at Chimgan mountains and outdoor reservoir excursions in spring at Charvak Reservoir and hiking in warmer months. We also offer customised family holidays, groups, incentives, and corporate travel. We saw a substantial increase in the number of tourists from the GCC countries and we expect this number to grow year by year. We are proud to be the Uzbekistan local partner of Fly Dubai, who have daily flights from Dubai to Tashkent and five times per week to Samarkand.

How can Uzbekistan's tourism sector adapt its services and facilities to better cater to the cultural and shopping practices of Middle Eastern tourists?

We have similar cultures, so there’s no need for us to adapt, and we’ve seen an increase in international four-star and five-star hotels and luxurious shopping malls, which is something that visitors from the GCC market look for when they travel abroad. Uzbekistan is also famous for its crafts and handicrafts that visitors appreciate in addition to the plethora of exciting, comfortable, adventurous, gastronomic and cultural trips Uzbekistan offers and travellers from the GCC value.

What marketing strategies could be most effective in promoting Uzbekistan as an attractive destination to travellers from the Middle East?

An effective marketing strategy is crucial to attracting tourists. We as a DMC collaborate with the Ministry of Tourism to create targeted marketing campaigns that highlight Uzbekistan’s unique selling points. This can include digital marketing, social media campaigns, participation in travel trade shows, and collaborations with international travel agencies. As Rocket DMC Uzbekistan, we recently participated in the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai at the Uzbekistan stand where the minister of tourism was also part of the delegation and where we clearly saw the interest in the destination. As a DMC, we foster partnerships with international travel agencies, tour operators, and airlines to promote Uzbekistan as a destination, and we create source market-specific products to cultivate interest in the destination. We can expand reach and tap into new markets by collaborating with these partners. We constantly participate in joint marketing campaigns, organise familiarisation trips, and develop incentives for travel agents to increase awareness and attract more tourists to Uzbekistan.

What visa facilitation measures could Uzbekistan implement to streamline the entry process for Middle Eastern tourists, mainly for the Persian-speaking Iranian market to the south?

Iran is not in our focus, but it is a close country for us. There is only one country between us, and it has close cultural and historical contacts between the regions. I’m not familiar with the current situation. They [Iranians] need to get an entry visa for Uzbekistan, but nowadays, the visa is relatively simple. We are hoping to increase connectivity between the countries. Turkmenistan [which lies between Iran and Uzbekistan] has been an issue in terms of road tourism to the country, with their strict COVID-19 rules.

How can Uzbekistan's unique historical and cultural heritage be showcased to appeal specifically to Middle Eastern tourists?

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Tashkent, Khiva and Bukhara offer a mesmerising blend of history, architecture and cultural experiences. From the awe-inspiring monuments of Samarkand to the modern vibrancy of Tashkent, the well-preserved marvels of Khiva and the timeless charm of Bukhara, leisure tourists from the GCC are sure to find themselves immersed in an enchanting journey through time.

As Uzbekistan continues to open its doors to the world, there has never been a better time to rediscover the magic of the Silk Road and explore the wonders of these captivating cities. Visitors step into the footsteps of ancient traders and embark on unforgettable adventures through Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities. Moreover, Uzbekistan can cater to pilgrimage tourism with Al Bukhari Mausoleum and countless historical mosques, mausoleums, and world heritage sites.

Could Uzbekistan host events or festivals that might particularly interest tourists from the Middle East?

The first thing that comes to my mind is Samarkand. The Silk Road Complex is an excellent venue for organising events, and the government has organised several state-led events at that location, so we can do this for tourism as well.

This complex opened in 2022. Silk Road Samarkand is a multipurpose resort for commercial, cultural, medical and gastronomic tourism. Boasting 1,198 rooms and suites, spread across eight 4- and 5-star hotels, and an eco-village consisting of 14 independent villas, each with its own private pool, Silk Road Samarkand also features 17 restaurants and bars, two full-fledged Spas and wellness centres, a 4,000 square metre Expo centre, a state-of-the-art congress centre and the Republican Grebnoy Canal, where guests can go for boating and enjoy the beautiful views of the hotels, the Congress Center, the Musical Fountains and, the Eternal City. The latter is a historical park that features authentic street performances and accurately recreates the spirit of the ancient city backed up by the history and traditions of Uzbek lands and people.

The narrow streets which depict the winding streets of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Fergana to name but a few places, house multiple shops of artists, and craftsmen, and consists of several restaurants that offer national dishes from different eras and regions of the country.

How can feedback from Middle Eastern tourists be gathered and used to improve their travel experience in Uzbekistan?

As a DMC, we collaborate with our trade partners in the source markets as well as the Ministry of Tourism to conduct research and gather data on tourism trends, visitor preferences, and market demands. This information is then used to develop targeted strategies and adapt tourism offerings to meet the evolving needs of tourists. Regular monitoring and analysis of visitor feedback help identify areas for improvement and ensure a high level of customer satisfaction.

Are you planning a Dubai-style Mall in Samarkand?

SRS plans to further its development with a new Aqua Park, and shopping centre, there is a demand for shopping. The Chinese are very fond of shopping. Tashkent has 20 shopping centres.

bne IntelliNews also took the chance to chat with Umid Shadiev, chairman of the Uzbekistan Tourism Committee.

What are the main attractions and travel experiences that Uzbekistan is highlighting at the WTM 2023?

Uzbekistan is highlighting at the WTM 2023 both traditional destinations of the “Silk Road”, including the rich heritage, gastronomy, and handicrafts, as well as the rapidly developing attractions of ecotourism, safari tourism, tourist villages, thematic clusters, and cross-border travel routes in Central Asia.

Can you provide more details about the delegation from Uzbekistan, including the roles of the Committee of Tourism and the National PR Centre?

The delegation of Uzbekistan includes representatives of the Tourism Committee, the National PR Centre, Uzbekistan Airways, and of course, the country's leading tour operators and travel agencies.

The role of the Committee and PR Centre is to facilitate the participation of as many members of Uzbekistan’s travel industry as possible at such international exhibitions to create more opportunities for business-to-business partnerships to increase the tourist flow to the country.

How is Uzbekistan Airways contributing to promoting tourism in Uzbekistan at the WTM?

We participate with the national booth throughout the year at over 20 major exhibitions, including WTM. And here, Uzbekistan Airways is our primary partner since the more tourists visit Uzbekistan, the more passengers the national air carrier receives. So, it is logical that they want to contribute to the better presence of Uzbekistan’s booth at such fairs.

What new travel packages or tours are companies like Orient Voyage and Central Asia Travel presenting at the event?

As I mentioned before, our companies offer many new packages on ecotourism, gastronomic tourism, pilgrimage tours, and family travel packages. Meanwhile, tours across all Central Asian countries are becoming very popular among Western tourists, so the “One tour – whole region” package offered by our business is one of the emerging ones.

Along with that, our most extensive MICE [Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions] tourism facility, Silk Road Tourism Centre, is also participating in WTM and presenting fascinating offers both for visitors and big businesses, corporates, banks, etcetera, to host their MICE events in Uzbekistan.

How is Uzbekistan addressing sustainable tourism and the challenges of "over-tourism" in its presentation at the WTM?

Sustainable development of the tourism industry is one of the highest priorities for the Government of Uzbekistan. We have invited many leading experts and institutions and prepared a comprehensive set of sustainable and green standards to be implemented at every stage of the tourism products and services supply chain. I’m confident that the participants at the recent 25th session of the UNWTO General Assembly were convinced of our commitment to suitable tourism.

Are there any new initiatives or agreements that Uzbekistan is part of, as discussed in the Ministers' Summit associated with the WTM?

We are planning to host seven million tourists by the end of this year and reach the milestone number of 10 million by the end of 2024.

Although Uzbekistan is one of the four most emerging tourism destinations according to the UNWTO, we have plenty of room till "over-tourism" [is a concern]. Anyway, the Committee of Tourism is studying the experience of big players like the UK, France, Spain and Turkey to prepare for such challenges.

What are the current trends in travel preferences among tourists from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that Uzbekistan can capitalise on?

Along with the Muslim world heritage sites, we see the beautiful nature of Uzbekistan, colourful culture and its handicrafts becoming very popular among our esteemed guests from the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Thus, let's present more on leisure opportunities in facilities located in tourism zones in mountain and soft nature areas.

How can Uzbekistan’s tourism sector adapt its services and facilities to better cater to the cultural and religious practices of Middle Eastern tourists?

The closeness of traditions and religious practices, along with Uzbek hospitality, creates the best conditions for tourists from the Middle East to feel at home. Moreover, the Tourism Committee is cooperating with the tourism authorities of these countries and enhancing local businesses' capacity to provide better catering for every guest from the Middle East.

What marketing strategies could be most effective in promoting Uzbekistan as an attractive destination to travellers from the Middle East?

As we know, tourists from this region prefer to travel with their families or in a bigger group of friends or relatives. Furthermore, they like nature attractions and want to get acquainted with the culture and traditions of the visiting country. So, I would suggest that slogans like “4 Seasons to Visit”, “Best Family Destination”, and “Festivals Whole Year” can be the hot points of the promotion strategy of Uzbekistan in the Middle East.

Are there direct flight connections between major cities in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, and if not, what can be done to facilitate easier travel?

Yes, we have direct flights with the above-mentioned countries almost every day. Moreover, to increase flight numbers from/to the region from January 2024 we and air carriers and tour operators who would like to organise direct or charter flights are subsidising up to 100 USD per tourist if they stay in Uzbekistan for at least five days.

What types of visa facilitation measures could Uzbekistan implement to streamline the entry process for Middle Eastern tourists?

As you know, citizens of all Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE) can visit Uzbekistan visa-free while some others can use our very simplified e-visa system and get their entry visas within 48 hours. Moreover, we have a five-day transit visa-free regime for those who are travelling through Uzbekistan to the next destination.

In general, thanks to the “Open doors” policy, Uzbekistan has introduced a visa-free regime for 93 countries and e-visa for 57, which makes the country very accessible for our esteemed tourists.

How can Uzbekistan’s unique historical and cultural heritage be showcased to appeal specifically to Middle Eastern tourists?

Of course, our main partners in this task are large media companies, well-known travel programs, and travel bloggers. We constantly prepare special showcases about Uzbekistan’s unique historical and cultural heritage. However, given the growing interest among the audience, the Tourism Committee invites the Middle East media to implement joint projects in this field.

What opportunities exist for collaboration with travel agencies and tour operators within Middle Eastern countries to promote Uzbek tourism?

Of course, we are highly interested and ready to assist tour operators and travel agencies of the Middle East planning to enter the Uzbek market. We can jointly hold B2B meetings, organise presentations on promising tourism destinations and attractions, and host joint promotional campaigns in their countries about the tourism potential of Uzbekistan.

Could Uzbekistan host events or festivals that might be of particular interest to tourists from the Middle East?

Annually, Uzbekistan hosts over 100 festivals and other events related to culture, art, music, gastronomy, handicrafts, heritage, nomad games, etcetera. Most of them have become very popular among both local and foreign tour groups. At the same time, the Tourism Committee is open to collaboration and ready to review promising proposals of partners from the Middle East who are willing to suggest promising new formats, events, and projects.

How can feedback from Middle Eastern tourists be gathered and used to improve their travel experience in Uzbekistan?

We are highly interested in receiving feedback from our guests because this is the best source to improve the quality of goods and services. In this regard, we use electronic and other forms of feedback/quality assessments at each stage of a tourist’s stay in Uzbekistan.

In addition, the Tourism Committee and regional departments regularly conduct surveys among tourists and study reviews collected. We also have online 24/7 discussion planforms with travel companies and tour operators.

We always carefully study them, systematise them, and, where necessary, make adjustments or innovations.

What role can Uzbek expatriates in the Middle East play in promoting tourism to Uzbekistan among their host communities?

In fact, Uzbek expatriates are the most influential tourism ambassadors of Uzbekistan. Because they are very familiar with the host communities and have a better understanding of their preferences. In this regard, we are actively working with the diaspora, and active compatriots, to better present Uzbekistan in these countries, including tourism potential.

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