Ecotourism is “Guiding Star” of the Future of Azerbaijan Tourism Industry
Vugar Dargahov, Member of the Executive Board, AzETA
Samir Dubendi, Executive Director, AzETA
Ecological tourism or ecotourism is one of the fastest growing types of tourism in the world and is almost the most modern and at the same time combines tourism activities with social, economic, natural and cultural spheres and creates a tandem with them.
The concept of ecotourism appeared in the late 80s of the last century. There are many explanations for ecotourism, and in our opinion, the definition given by the McCormick in 1994 can be considered more accurate and appropriate: “Purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people”.
It is from this perspective and taken into consideration the vast natural, cultural, social, ethnographic, as well as recreational, national cuisine, traditional crafts, folklore, agriculture and other resources available for tourism we understand important and useful role of ecotourism for the country.
Taking these into account and as a result of the progressive and far-sighted policy pursued by the Head of State, 10 National Parks have been established in the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan since 2003.
Just for information, the National Park is an area with special ecological, historical, aesthetic and other nature complexes and objects, used for nature protection, education, scientific, cultural and other purposes, with the status of nature protection and scientific research entity. In addition, National Parks are institutions established to protect the environment, its efficient use, conservation of biodiversity, including rare and endangered plant and animal species, and the development of ecotourism..
The total area of Azerbaijan National Parks is 4,237.44 km2, which covers about 4.9% of the country’s territory. In terms of area, it is the largest Shahdag National Park, with an area of 1,305.08 km2, and the smallest is the Absheron National Park, with an area of only 7.83 km2. All National Parks in Azerbaijan are managed by the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. The first National Park in the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan was Zangazur National Park named after Academician Hasan Aliyev in 2003.
Preserving 112 species of fauna and about 200 species of flora listed in the Red Book, the national parks are considered accessible for ecotourists.Wetlands, semi-deserts, arid forests, mountain forests, mountain meadows, nival rocky and glacial landscapes are spread in the National Parks, which creates favorable conditions for various types of ecotourism. At the same time, there are various natural monuments in their territory, for example, waterfalls in Shahdag (9), Hirkan (2), Zangazur (5), more than 20 different lakes with exotic landscapes and origin, as well as more than 100 geological and geomorphological monument.
There are 111 tourist routes and trails in the National Parks of Azerbaijan, which are distinguished by different types and complexity, and operate depending on demand. There are 52 routes in the territory of Shahdag National Park.
Note that the number of visitors to the National Parks in 2011 was 31,000, in 2015 – 75,000, and in 2019 – 98,800. Goy-Gol National Park is considered to have received the most tourists. Thus, in 2019, Goygol National Park received 57,312, Shahdag National Park – 10,670, Hirkan National Park – 3,210, Shirvan National Park – 2,480, Absheron National Park – 2,160, Altiagaj National Park – 1,236, and others received less than 1,000 visitors.
For comparison, we would like to show that although the area of Azerbaijani National Parks is three times larger than the area of Georgian National Parks, but it lags behind six times in terms of the number of tourists. Thus, the number of tourists visited National Parks of Georgia in 2019 amounted to 612,000 people. However, it should be noted that the number of ecotourists should be strictly regulated, and the reception of more tourists may not be always considered a success, as the growing number of tourists and gaps in the regulation of their activities can seriously damage nature instead of protecting it, may hinder the socio-economic activities and life of the local community and lead to the violation of their customs and traditions.
It should be noted that over the past two years, more than 20 cultural events covering different age groups have been held in the National Parks of Azerbaijan. These activities are included hiking, cycling, horseback riding, amateur fishing tours, adventures, bird watching and others. However, the poor organization of propaganda and marketing of these events did not allow to ensure its popularity and sustainability. “Open doors” are also organized in the national parks to promote the potential of ecotourism and increase the interest of tourists in the national parks. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Recourses has also developed an Action Plan on Sustainable Development of Ecotourism in National Parks for 2020-2023 years with the participation of international organizations.
Azerbaijan Ecotourism Association is implementing various action plans to effectively useing the potential of existing National Parks. The Association calls for ecotourism events, taking into account natural and ecological features of each National Park, and puts forward various similar initiatives.
AzETA experts believe that creation and development of ecotourism activities that meet sustainable goals, as stated in the Regulation of National Parks, play an important role in the management of these areas and their economic activities.
Research shows that the measures need to be comprehensive. AzETA already appealed to the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources with various proposals. And we hope that in the post-pandemic period, a lot of work will be done to implement these plans on the basis of public-private partnership, and we shall cunduct scientific and practical researches, assessment of the current situation, and at last creation of ecotourism products.
In order to fully realize the ecotourism potential of the National Parks experts of Azerbaijan Ecotourism Association propose re-evaluate and certify tourism resources, compile interactive-digital maps of tourist routes and trails, providing access to tourists via Internet platforms, increase the knowledge and skills of tourist and mountain guides, selection of areas for adventure, mountain sports, amateur activities, birdwatching and other outdoor tourism activities, design and branding of ecotourism products with taking into account the features and natural-ecological conditions.
The liberation of our country’s ancient and native lands from occupation during the Patriotic War last year led by Supreme Commander-in-Chief, President, Mr. Ilham Aliyev laid the foundation for the establishment of extensive ecotourism activities in Garabakh and surrounding areas.
We are confident that in the near future we will be able to raise Garabakh to level of the most popular ecotourism destinations in the world and promote Azerbaijan as a new ecotourism destination at the international market. Experts of Azerbaijan Ecotourism Association shall do their best to be closely involved and contribute to development of ecotourism in the country. New National Parks will be established in these areas and we will witness creation and development of ecotourism activities based on sustainable tourism goals.
Let us recall that the Association was created in 2019 on the initiative of several specialists and associations in the field of ecotourism, ecology and nature protection and specializes in promotion strengthening the interests of all stakeholders in the development of ecological culture, green innovations, sustainable and ecological tourism.