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Azerbaijan:
Transitioning from a Black Gold Economy
to a Sustainable Tourism and Innovation Economy

Annie Beaulieu, Director, Australia Regional Office, G20 Research Group
March 16, 2016

Two big issues that the G20 has addressed are sustainable development and tourism as a component of international trade. One example of how the two might come together in ways that could expire increased and more integrated G20 action is by looking at the case of Azerbaijan.

With the oil prices dropping threefold in 2015 and the depreciation of its currency as a result, Azerbaijan is betting on innovation and sustainable tourism to ensure the continued growth of its economy. Its non-oil industry accounts for approximately 70% of gross domestic product and grew by 8.4% in 2015. The government is driving several initiatives to stimulate this growth.

This former Soviet country, which proclaimed its independence only in 1991, is working hard to enhance its international image by hosting several high-profile international events in recent years, including Eurovision held at the purpose-built Baku's Crystal Hall in 2012, the European Games in 2015) and the Formula 1 in June 2016. It has been developing state-of-the-art facilities, such as the National Olympic Stadium, and architectural masterpieces such as Heydar Aliyev Center and the Flame Towers overlooking the old city and its Maiden Tower. Those impressive landmarks are becoming recognized worldwide and enhancing the image of Baku as a desirable and intriguing destination that will continue to attract growing numbers of visitors.

Azerbaijan was the featured country at the World Tourism Forum in Lucerne in May 2015 and hosted the forum's Think Tank in Baku in March 2016, where 30 industry experts discussed key drivers for success — an event taken seriously and supported by President Ilham Aliyev, who took the time to meet some of the internationally acknowledged experts in the field, including Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Gerald Lawless, chair-elect of World Travel and Tourism Council, Isabel Hill, director of the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries at the United States Department of Commerce, and Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Tourism Association. Azerbaijan's minister of tourism and culture, Abulfas Garayev, and his deputy, Nazim Samadov, participated in the entire forum, sharing and learning best practices for enhancing the country's international image and supporting the growth of its industry.

Martin Barth, CEO of World Tourism Forum Lucerne, said, "Our think tank brings together experts who share a common goal and prioritize a balance between growth and sustainability, so that the authenticity in world's tourism destinations and cultures can be preserved and protected."

Azerbaijan takes the development of its tourism industry very seriously and is implementing proactive measures to support its growth by raising awareness of its diverse cultures and natural resources as an emerging tourism destination. The government heavily invested in Shahdag, a ski and spa resort in the north east of the country, investing in other new infrastructure including roads to open up this relatively untouched and unexplored part of the country. Indeed, this area has the most potential, with a hiking paradise in the mountains surrounding the remote artisan village of Lahij and the highest village Khinalig, and the old, romantic city of Sheki with its traditional sweets. However, much remains to be done to attract and host more visitors to these areas.

The UNWTO's Silk Road Programme will hopefully support the sustainable development of tourism for this whole region by leveraging the organization's main priorities of safety, innovation and sustainability and by supporting a public-private partnership approach to implementing and achieving the objectives for marketing and promotion, infrastructure, heritage management, aviation, major events and risk management and visas, among other development imperatives. Supporting this initiative, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway — running from Azerbaijan through Georgia and into Turkey — is under construction and will connect Azerbaijan with Europe by train for the first time.

Azerbaijan and the surrounding countries have the potential to show the rest of the world how tourism can effectively contribute to sustainable development. They are building the foundation to support their industry. Abulfas Garayev's political will to address the need for creating a mindful balance between people, planet and profitability for an optimal tourism experience is key to enabling the industry to support economic growth and also to contribute to achieving the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. This is particularly timely as the UN Statistical Commission has agreed on a set of global indicators to measure success for the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

As Rifai said in his address to the ITB Berlin on 8 March, "As we embrace a new sustainable development agenda, let us ensure that while we build a more competitive sector we are also contributing to a better world."

See also Taleb Rifai: Tourism in the new sustainable development agenda

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Annie BeaulieuAnnie Beaulieu, MBA, is director of the Australian office of the G20 Research Group, a Global Advisory Board member of the World Tourism Forum, and founder and CEO of Freeedom, a global collective impact initiative bringing partners together to leverage tourism to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Freeedom supports entrepreneurs and micro, small and medium enterprises to connect with travellers seeking authentic experiences with a positive social, cultural and environmental impact. Freeedom was a finalist for the 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization Ulysses Award for Innovation in Research and Technology and received the World Tourism Forum Lucerne's Start-up Innovation Award. Annie has been a delegate to the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance summits and is actively involved with the Committee of Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). She is a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs and the UN program "Designing for Social Innovation and Leadership." See her LinkedIn profile for more information.


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