Feature: Uzbekistan expects int’l tourists to return after pandemic

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TASHKENT. Feb. 14 (Xinhua) — Located along the Silk Road and with plenty of cultural heritage and historical monuments, Uzbekistan has long depended on tourism as a pillar industry for economic growth.

The country this week introduced a ten-day visa free regime for tourists from China including its special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, as well as Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman starting from March 1.

To be eligible, travelers from these countries and regions should provide a return air ticket or ticket to a third country.

Uzbekistan has also planned to open its largest gold-mining fields to foreign tourists, in a bid to develop geo-tourism in the resource-rich Central Asian nation.

Kholida Ablaeva, a tour guide with 20 years of experience from the ancient city of Samarkand, has been waiting for the reopening of borders to allow foreign tourists to return to her hometown as they did before COVID-19.

Ablaeva said that the country’s tourism industry developed rapidly in 2019. At that time, her working day would begin at 5 a.m. and end after midnight. Money was good and the pace fast.

Over the past four years, the Uzbek government has taken a series of measures to boost tourism, with a goal of receiving more than 9 million foreign tourists by 2025, boosting the share of the tourism industry to 5 percent of gross domestic product, up from 2.3 percent in 2017, according to the Uzbek State Tourism Committee.

But the outbreak of COVID-19 has obstructed the plan, Uzbekistan announced lockdown restrictions beginning in March last year, forcing domestic travel agencies, hotels and transport companies to close.

Uncertainty remains. Those employed in tourism had little choice but to seek out other income alternatives and may not return to the travel industry, Ablaeva said.

In an effort to support the tourism sector during the pandemic, the government has allowed tourism within the country and granted tax privileges to tourist companies.

“This year, Uzbekistan plans to attract 1.7 million foreign tourists and 7.5 million local tourists. We look forward to foreign tourists returning to Uzbekistan after the epidemic,” said Tursunali Kuziev, a professor at Uzbek University of Journalism and Mass Communications.

“In order to enable foreign tourists to better experience the culture here, the Uzbekistan government is increasing the training of tour guides, and improving accommodation and tourist service facilities,” the professor said.

Tourism largely depended on foreign visitors, Ablaeva said, adding that there were a lot of Chinese, Germans and Russians travelling to Samarkand before the pandemic.

To earn money, some guides have gone digital, conducting their excursions online, which Ablaeva believed is an interim solution.

“You have to see history with your own eyes. If there is a professional guide nearby, you can always look at familiar sights from a new angle, expand your knowledge and be inspired by architectural monuments and nature,” she said.

Ablaeva and her colleagues continue to work despite their reduced earnings, yet she remains hopeful given her knowledge of five languages.

She has even worked free of charge as a guide to stay in tune and because she loves her work. “I really miss tourists and I believe that the tourism industry will be in full swing again in the near future.” Enditem

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