TD Conversations: Florian Sengstschmid, CEO, Azerbaijan Tourism Board

The industry veteran, who has helped Azerbaijan pivot effectively in the pandemic, firmly believes that investment in technology and collaboration between nations is key for the sector to survive this difficult time.

Pre-historic geographical wonders, simmering volcanoes, a charming medieval walled city, and bustling new towns – a visit to Azerbaijan packs in a lot for the discerning tourist. It’s a fascinating country that has emerged as a must-visit destination for those who love their travels to be tempered with a dose of exotica. A result of innovative marketing campaigns, friendly policies, and a safe environment.

But with borders still closed and no respite from the virus in sight, you will have to wait a while before you can give wings to your holiday dreams to this former Soviet Republic. The silver lining among the dark clouds is that the COVID-compliant measures, a robust vaccination programme and tech-led initiatives that are being undertaken by the government, may help the country bring back tourism to pre-pandemic levels.

The person leading the fightback is Florian Sengstschmid, CEO of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, who firmly believes that investment in technology and collaboration between nations, as opposed to competition, will be the key for the sector to emerge a winner in the battle against the pandemic.

Sengstschmid, an industry veteran of over 25 years, has supported the development of tourism in countries like Estonia, Greece, Vietnam, Bhutan, Hungary, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Heading ATB, he has overseen the growth of the sector, leading it to be one of the key drivers of a diversified economy. But the COVID lockdown and closed borders dealt a huge blow to the industry.

The need of the hour was to pivot and reorganise, and that’s exactly what Azerbaijan did. “It was important to sustain our local, domestic industry and key value-chain partners,” says Sengstschmid.

“We started tourism training and certification centres. We also launched Azerbaijan 101, an e-learning platform, and designed special courses to groom destination experts.”

Florian Sengstschmid, CEO Azerbaijan Tourism Board

Engaging a good mix of live sessions, professional speaking courses, virtual familiarisation trips, press conferences, and guided tours, the ATB gave the industry all the push it needed to prepare the country for a post-pandemic world.

Sengstschmid, like many other experts, agrees that travel might never be the same again – at least not for the foreseeable future – but the current challenges would not stop people from wanting to explore and give in to their wanderlust. Keeping this in mind, Azerbaijan Tourism has embarked on special initiatives charting new routes for future travellers to discover. Like drawing up a wine track to promote the native wine industry, developing a package trail covering neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan, and much more. With traditional tourist havens like Europe and the US likely to adopt more stringent restrictions for outsiders, the hope is that smaller, newer and easier-to-access destinations such as Azerbaijan might benefit once the borders open up fully.

This is particularly good news to intrepid Indian travellers who had contributed to a 67 per cent surge in traffic to Azerbaijan in 2019. But with the virus creating havoc in India and countries placing massive travel restrictions on Indians, will it continue to be an attraction for destinations abroad? “Absolutely, 100 per cent,” Sengstschmid emphasises, explaining, “India will always be a huge market for us. We are confident that once the pandemic is under control, India will be an attraction, not just for other nations but also as a shining destination on its own. I am confident Indians will be travelling soon to other countries and also to Azerbaijan.”

The wait will be worth it for what awaits on the other side are new attractions, a friendly visa process, greater connectivity and exotic experiences.

To find out more and help you make your future travel plans, watch the conversation with Florian Sengstschmid.

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