Videoconference held between President Ilham Aliyev and Secretary-General of World Tourism Organization

30 june 2020, 13:40

On the initiative of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a video conference has been held between President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and Secretary-General of the UNWTO Zurab Pololikashvili.

Greeting Zurab Pololikashvili, President Ilham Aliyev said:

- Good afternoon, dear Mr. Secretary General. I am pleased to see you. This is a good opportunity to meet again and discuss common matters. Of course, the tourism sector is one of the worst affected ones by the pandemic. We are observing this in Azerbaijan and, of course, all over the world. Therefore, additional burden falls on your shoulders, of course, because, firstly, the flow of tourists during the pandemic has reduced, but also the recovery of this sector in the post-pandemic period will, of course, be fraught with certain restrictions.

You know that there was a significant increase in the numbers of visitors to our country recently. A record indicator was registered last year – more than 3 million foreign citizens visited Azerbaijan. In percentage terms, tourist flow grew by about 15 percent. If we take into account the fact that the growth ranged from 10 to 24 percent annually in the past four to five years, we can imagine that this sector has gained quite a momentum. We are pleased that both the private sector actively invests in it and government support is provided. During the pandemic, we provided financial support to people working in this sector because they almost had no work. This support will be provided until the sector begins to recover. Therefore, thank you for this initiative to talk about important issues. Great to see you again!

Zurab Pololikashvili: Mr. President, first of all, thank you for taking the time and for the opportunity to meet and talk again. We were in Baku exactly a year ago, in June. We had a meeting of the Executive Council. Meetings of the Executive Council are one of the most important events for our organization. I want to thank you again for the warm hospitality. All our guests were very pleased and everything went well. As you pointed out quite well, this pandemic has affected everyone, the whole world was closed for two to three months and the borders of almost 150 countries still remain closed. The tourism sector is faced with the biggest losses, the biggest crisis not only in Azerbaijan, but also throughout the world, and this has never happened before. We are currently in a crisis that has never happened before. We are talking about the loss of approximately $1 trillion 500 million, according to general data to date.

Speaking about the work done by the UN World Tourism Organization over the past two months, Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili noted that a crisis committee was set up on day one. It includes active countries in the region and relevant international organizations, the “Stay home to travel tomorrow” campaign was declared. Touching upon cooperation between Azerbaijan and the World Tourism Organization, Zurab Pololikashvili noted with satisfaction the support the head of our state and the WTO provided for the hotel certification project.

President Ilham Aliyev: Thank you! First of all, thank you for your cooperation and support of the tourism sector in Azerbaijan. I remember our meeting. Back then, you were elected to the important post of Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization relatively recently. I think one of your first visits was to Azerbaijan. We met then and even attended a tourism exhibition together. So I remember our meetings and would also like to thank you for participating in the meeting of the Executive Council of the World Tourism Organization in Baku last year. We view the fact that the council meeting of such an important international body was held in Baku as a sign of friendship and support from the WTO.

Of course, your recommendations we will follow in the post-pandemic period are very valuable. During the pandemic, as you noted, most countries of the world closed their borders, including Azerbaijan. Our borders are still closed, they only open to receive Azerbaijani citizens who want to return to their homeland and for the departure of foreigners who want to leave Azerbaijan. This is due to the fact that we, first of all, think about people’s safety, health and life, of course. Given the fact that the virus was imported into Azerbaijan from outside, we believe that the closure of borders is the only right step at this stage, of course. But we also hope that as the pandemic declines and in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization we are working closely with, we will also open up, open our borders. It is difficult to say when this will happen. But as soon as it happens, of course, your recommendations on the recovery of the tourism sector will be very important.

What did we do during this period? We paid the bigger part of the wages to those working in the tourism sector so that they had a livelihood and so that entrepreneurs engaged in this sector could maintain human resources. I am informed that, unfortunately, there is a certain reduction in the number of employees. Therefore, I have given instructions to the government to consider this issue and continue to support the tourism sector. As you know perfectly well, it is very difficult and responsible to build up capacity. We were doing this very actively in Azerbaijan. We started with infrastructure projects, we started with projects related to the introduction of the country, with participation in exhibitions and various international events. I must say that the rapid growth of tourism in Azerbaijan was largely associated with the hosting of Formula 1 events. As soon as the first race was held, we immediately saw an increase in tourism. Every year, as I said, we were building up our potential and, according to various sources, foreign visitors spend about $1.5-2 billion somewhere in Azerbaijan every year. This is a large influx of currency into our economy. Therefore, given the fact that we invested a lot of effort in creating a travel industry and brought large companies engaged in the hotel business, leading world brands, we cannot afford to lose this sphere, of course. We need to maintain human resources, we must maintain what has been accumulated. Therefore, the state will provide its support.

But, of course, in order for us to work more correctly in the post-pandemic period, we will need recommendations from your organization. We are counting on this very much. We are sure that we will follow the advice that you will give us and try to implement it in order to try to restore this sector in the shortest possible time. It will not be easy though. Of course, we will closely monitor the steps leading countries will be taking in the field of tourism. They have extensive experience and, to a certain extent, rely heavily on the tourism sector for their economic development. And we will continue our contacts. I am sure we will see you in Azerbaijan again as soon as possible.

Zurab Pololikashvili: Thank you, Mr. President! You have assessed everything perfectly well. I want to thank again for such support of the private sector. You noted quite correctly and I saw it with my own eyes – the strength and the investments that were made under your leadership. I saw with my own eyes how the country has changed over the last three to five years in terms of tourist numbers. Such projects as, for example, Formula 1, the investments in the hotel business – all this is reflected in numbers. In fact, the recommendations we sent to countries from the first day spoke of greater support of the private business and people employed in this sector. Thank you very much indeed for such support.

This is the most important part today – people and their health. As for tomorrow, as you noted very well, we will support and share the good examples of large and developed countries. We are located in Madrid, Spain. Spain is one of the affected countries, its tourism business has been affected by COVID-19. They have a very specific and interesting development plan in the post-pandemic period.

We will certainly cooperate with your organizations and hand over a ready-made document so that we don’t waste any time, so that we are ready as soon as the season opens to continue popularizing countries. All countries are ready now and are beginning their campaigns. Everyone wants to prepare for the day when international relations are re-opened. So all this has already been prepared, and we will be in direct contact and we will actively send all the good ideas, all the good examples that can be used to return to the numbers that Azerbaijan reached in recent years as quickly as possible.

President Ilham Aliyev: Thank you very much! We will follow the recommendations of the WTO. Of course, we will monitor, as I said, the actions of countries that have the most developed tourism industry. Moreover, it is possible to say that a third of the summer season is already gone. Therefore, countries will be opening more in July and in August for sure. I monitor what is happening in the world. I am already seeing that air service between travel destinations is already being restored, so we will closely monitor this.

At the same time, I would also like to say that now we are paying great attention to domestic tourism, especially during the pandemic. Although it will not fully replace external tourism, it can load our tourism infrastructure to some extent, including the regions. Therefore, taking into account the fact that since Azerbaijani citizens cannot travel abroad now, domestic tourism can be the factor that will support the tourism sector, of course. And as soon as the pandemic fades away, of course, we must plan our steps very clearly. I want to say again that we will wait for your further advice and recommendations in this area, so as not to make mistakes and take steps that will lead to the restoration of the tourism sector.

I am sure that the tourism sector around the world will recover. It is clear and is just a matter of time. We will continue to invest in this area and create even greater conditions for foreign tourists. Because all the factors that would contribute to this are available in Azerbaijan. these include a stable public and political situation, security, the hospitality of our people, the presence of historical sites, the natural diversity, the summer tourism, the winter tourism, and the Azerbaijani cuisine. So all the factors are there. There is also the geographical location and our air links with various countries of the world. Therefore, only focused work and capacity building, plus, of course, the elimination of bureaucratic obstacles that impede a greater influx of foreign citizens into the country – all this is on our agenda.

Zurab Pololikashvili: I absolutely agree. All over the world, probably during the summer holidays, local tourism will develop more, and it happens that in January we declared 2020 a “Year of Rural and Regional Tourism”. We did not know that there would be a pandemic. And now there is a good chance to restore this, so that countries invest in infrastructure in the regions. In the regions, this will give people the opportunity to create a new workforce. I think that during this period local tourism will develop more. This may be a good chance for countries to develop regional tourism. We will certainly work very closely with you, of course. Thank you so much for your support. Our conversation is very important for us, because all world leaders have confirmed that tourism is one of the most important factors in the economies of all countries. And, of course, your participation, your activity will help a lot and help us all so that we feel more confident. Your support, I am sure, will give a great impetus and great support to local entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan and throughout the sector. I want to thank again for your time and for such a warm conversation.

President Ilham Aliyev: Thank you! Thank you very much indeed! I want to thank you again for this initiative. I am very glad that very close relations have developed between Azerbaijan and the organization you are heading. You have personally contributed a lot to this. We know you as a friend of our country, so we will actively cooperate with each other. And when the borders are opened, we look forward to seeing you in Azerbaijan. Thank you very much!

Zurab Pololikashvili: We will definitely meet. Thank you so much!