Summer 1998 (6.2)
by Betty Blair
I'll never forget my first trip to the Soviet Union. It was 1976. I was living in Greece at the time, and so I joined a group of 30 Greek dentists making a 10-day tour to Moscow and Leningrad. Of course, we were shown the biggest, the brightest, and best - wasn't that what the Soviet Union was all about?
However, tensions stemming from the Cold War clouded our experience. We always doubted that we were seeing the "real" Soviet Union and had suspicions that our hotel rooms were bugged and that the guys following us around were really KGB agents.
As for Azerbaijan, we had no clue that such a place even existed. Moscow, the central decision-making seat of the Politburo, made sure that all foreign dollars were funneled into Russian coffers.
Today, it's easy to forget that for 70 years (1920-1991), the Iron Curtain separated Azerbaijan from the international community. It's amazing, that such isolation did not made Azerbaijanis insular or hostile. In fact, the opposite is true. You'll find a warm, curious people, eager to embrace new friends. As the Italian Ambassador Alessandro Fallavollita recently observed, "Azerbaijanis are not xenophobic. Foreigners feel very comfortable here." In fact, one of the most esteemed qualities in their culture is hospitality, which, of course, is the cornerstone of tourism. Stinginess and distrustfulness are disdained.
Sketch: Reprinted with permission. July 28, 1980.
Of course, Azerbaijan, with its sunny clime and azure sea did provide a playground for "tourists" during the Soviet period-but most of them came from neighboring Soviet republics or from eastern European Soviet bloc countries. So, it's no wonder that so little infrastructure exists today for tourism. After all, the Soviet socialist system was not known for being a paragon for service, and the whole concept of tourism, of course, is based on the principle of serving the public and pampering to their whims.
Nor should it be forgotten that for millennia caravans have made their way through this crossroads between east and west, north and south. Note the cane boat petroglyphs carved on the cave walls at Gobustan more than 5,000 years ago, or the crumbling caravanseries throughout the countryside. Journals of travelers such as the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) or French novelist Alexander Dumas (1802-1870) provide historical observations. Private postcard collections, featuring the most prominent tourist attractions from the turn of last century, were printed in French, German and, of course, Russian.
It's still a bit early for waves of tourists to descend on Azerbaijan, though in our opinion, with foreign investment, Azerbaijan has the potential to become what Beirut was in the 1970s--"the Paris of the Middle East." Many of the West's most prestigious travel magazines are already sending their journalists to check out the possibilities. National Geographic has been working on a regional piece about the Caspian for several years. Smithsonian magazine did a piece last year. Conde Nast Traveler and National History Museum will soon publish their observations. A CBS television camera crew has just finished filming an introductory piece to air in a few months.
Despite the fact that tourist infrastructure is really not in place yet, private enterprise is setting the stage by establishing hotels, restaurants, bank services, car rentals and daily flights from Europe. But for tourism to thrive, the Azerbaijani government will have to seriously build up the infrastructure to match international standards. That's not to suggest that the journey has not begun. One of their greatest accomplishments these past five years has been to create a stable, political climate following the Karabakh war with Armenia. It should also be noted that Azerbaijan's crime level is far lower than Europe's or America's.
But there's still a desperate need to improve lodging, the road system, medical facilities, internal transportation and tourist support services. Telecommunications has been the first to reap the benefit of international attention. Four or five years ago, you could barely dial in to Azerbaijan. It wasn't unusual to have to push the "re-dial" button on your phone 50 times before making the connection. Today, internet connections via satellite are commonplace.
There are many more cities and regions to discover in Azerbaijan other than the ones we've briefly mention here but we think these pages will get you started. Note that our "Walking Tour of the Old City of Baku" on page 20 is the first time such a guide has ever been published. But we have not touched upon the natural phenomena of the Caucasus mountain ranges (travel at your own risk, the roads are treacherous) or the extraordinary opportunities for bird-watching in southern coastal marshes.
Again, for the fourth year we include a Resource Directory of our advertisers in this summer issue to coincide with the 5th Caspian Oil & Gas Exhibition. The directory provides a quick reference to many of the new faces and new places in town. Inevitably, this information will change over the year. To stay updated, check our Web Site <azer.com> under "Services" where you'll find each company listed on a separate page.
Have a great trip to Azerbaijan. The spirit of openness and hospitality is everywhere. The best advice we can offer is: Make friends and be flexible. As the Azerbaijanis say, "Yakh-shi Yol" (Good Road)!
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