Caspian Countries Unveil Incentives to Attract Foreign Visitors
Countries in the Caspian Region have unveiled new incentives to attract foreign visitors amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Uzbekistan instituted a ten-day visa free regime for citizens from China, including Hong Kong and Macao, as well as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. Visitors only need to provide proof of a return air ticket or a ticket to a third country to be eligible to enter the country without a visa. The new initiative is slated to go into effect on March 1. Similarly, Georgia and South Korea inked an air traffic agreement which will allow Georgian and South Korean airlines to operate regular service between the two countries. The COVID-19 pandemic burdened businesses in the tourism industry as restrictions hampered cross-border movement. Despite the persistent uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, countries in the Caspian Region have been eager to bring in foreign visitors as a means of creating economic growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted plans to increase the number of inbound visitors to the region in 2020. For example, the Caspian countries decided to suspend international travel with China in late January to curb the spread of the coronavirus into their countries. The ban on Chinese nationals was followed by a similar one imposed on Iranian nationalsin late February, and a complete shutdown on international travelers in mid-March. These restrictions have severely affected the tourism industry across the Caspian region as it is forced to cope with a significant drop in visitors.
In Georgia, the country’s tourism industry was one of the most hard-hit sectors due to COVID-19 related shutdowns. Georgia welcomed over 9 million international travelers in 2019, making it the highest-recorded number of foreign visitors to the country in one year. Furthermore, tourism and other tourism-related sectors account for 22 percentof the country’s GDP. Similarly, the Uzbek government estimated a $150 million loss in revenue in April 2020 attributed to the sudden halt in tourists traveling to the Central Asian republic.
The considerable economic and social effects from sustained lockdown measures unsurprisingly generated eagerness among government officials to expedite the reopening process. Georgia was one of the first countries in the world to reopen its borders on July 1, 2020, albeit only from countries labeled “Green Zones,” where coronavirus infection rates appeared to be contained. In 2021, Georgia is still pushing ahead to reopen its borders, despite infection rates in the country itself being worse than in the summer of 2020. On February 1, Georgia resumed regular international flights after imposing a stringent lockdown in March 2020. In addition, shopping centers, in-person schooling, and municipal transport reopened in most Georgian towns and cities, except Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Rustavi. However, it is unclear when restaurants and hotels will be allowed to open again at full capacity. Moreover, Georgia announced that it would welcome visitors from any nation so long as they could prove that they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Georgia maintains ambitious plans to fully reopen its borders to alleviate the financial burden that has been placed on the country’s tourism sector, one of its main economic drivers.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s monumental effects on the tourism sectors across the Caspian region have prompted governments to implement innovative initiatives to revive the struggling industry. Not only has Uzbekistan introduced a new ten-day visa free regime for citizens of select countries, but the government is also mulling opening its largest gold mining field to international visitors. Foreign tourists would be able to observe the process of gold extraction and blasting operations in the mines. Uzbekistan hopes to capitalize on the growing popularity of industrial tourism to boost its previously burgeoning tourism business.
Initiatives to revamp the region’s tourism industry predate the pandemic. However, the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 worldwide has required Caspian governments to shift their strategy to attract foreign visitors during a global crisis. Georgia and Uzbekistan hope that their attempts to incentivize international visitors will help revive the struggling tourism and hospitality sector and stimulate its economy into the new year.