Tajikistan: what about tourism?

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Dushanbe1_4 I have been in Tajikistan for over one year now and I since had the chance to visit the country and a bit of the region as well. Frankly speaking, Tajikistan lacks the charm of Samarkand and Bukhara, the two central Asian gems, which share with Tajikistan their cultural heritage. But despite its proximity to Afghanistan, you feel quite safe everywhere, so traveling is pleasant and worth a trip. In particular, if you love adventure and the outdoors, the landscape is beautiful (visit the Pamirs!) and in some parts you can still feel the detachment from the West searched for by the most adventurous tourists!

The ingredients are there to make Tajikistan another exotic destination for tourists. So, why did only 30.000 tourists entered the country last year (counting general visitors and multiple entrants)?

Tourism is a typical example of uncoordinated and often conflicting policies, which do not support (and even hinder!) private sector development … Tourism is one of the priority sectors for the Tajik government according to the National Development Strategy,so you would expect a more organized approach to its development such as in the Kirghiz Republic, where tourism is a major industry or even in Uzbekistan, where organized tours are regularly held. A few facts might help explain the limited tourist flow:

  1. Air access: up until one and a half years ago, the only way to reach Dushanbe was via Moscow, which implied additional visa requirements for Western citizens … but above all, using the national carrier "Tajik Air" (see my first previous blog or other references). Now the situation has improved: Turkish Air connects twice a week Dushanbe with Istanbul. Unfortunately, the flights land and take off in the middle of the night (arrival at 3 am – departure at 5 am). As a result reaching Dushanbe requires 3 days of rest afterwards. Luggage takes about 1 and a half- 2 hours to travel from the plane to the terminal … I promise to deliver some pictures of ghostly guests waiting for luggage in the terminal. Not exactly a welcome package for the tourist eager to visit a new country.
  2. Visa regime: about 12 months ago, the Tajik Government took a bold step by practically abolishing the visa regimes for most countries and allowing their citizens to get a Visa upon arrival at the Dushanbe airport (eliminating the cumbersome process of letter of invitations and approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Although there was still room for improvement in the Visa issuing process at the airport, everybody acknowledged the positive impact of easing the access. Last month, however, the simplified regime was cancelled. We are now in the process of figuring out the detailed provisions of the new document (unclear) … and hope for a reversal.
  3. Licensing of tourism activities: running a tourist company is well-acknowledged not to pose a serious risk to health and safety of the population or to the security of the state. If you agree with the statement above, you would admit that as such it should not require a license from the "Committee on Youth, Sport and Tourism" to open a business (see our report Chapter 4 - Licensing). Unfortunately, in Tajikistan the law provides a strong disincentive to run a potentially profitable business.
  4. Travel permits: mountaineering or just traveling to the Pamirs (the GBAO region, with peaks over 7.000 meters high) is a unique experience. Sadly traveling independently to the region requires a permit, 2 weeks of waiting and additional fee (currently $50.00). Remember that access to Tajikistan is already regulated by the visa regime described above!
  5. Tourist registration: following the Soviet regulations, each visa-holding tourist (and is some cases a specific permit) needs to register at the MFA and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) within 3-days upon arrival, and in the case of GBAO also at the local MIA office in each visited location.

Well, are you still surprised by the low number of tourists arriving every year? Unfortunately, this opinion is not only a personal one: The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2007 by the World Economic Forum has ranked Tajikistan 110th among 124 countries in terms of attractiveness for tourism development.

Interesting enough: a handful of 5 Stars hotels, including a Hyatt, are being built around the Dushanbe to greet the crowds!




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