Breaking Travel News interview: Florian Sengstschmid, chief executive, Azerbaijan Tourism Board
Florian Sengstschmid has more than 25 years of experience in the tourism industry. He worked for the Austrian National Tourist Board, as regional director for Russia and CIS countries, and while in Moscow, also worked as a commercial attaché at the Austrian embassy. As an independent tourism consultant, Sengstschmid supported a wide range of countries in tourism development. In 2018, he was appointed as a chief executive of Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB).
Breaking Travel News: What is the current status of inbound tourism to Azerbaijan? And what changes did you implement in order to continue operating during the pandemic?
Florian Sengstschmid: The situation with Covid-19 has prompted the closure of borders and had a significant negative impact on the global tourism industry.
Azerbaijan is no exception.
Undoubtedly, the number of inbound travellers significantly decreased due to restrictions on international travel.
In these times, our main aim was to bring together all stakeholders and players along the tourism supply chain to eliminate the hardships brought by the pandemic and minimise the impact on the industry.
We have been closely working with the relevant stakeholders to make sure that once the international travel ban is lifted and borders reopen, we are ready to welcome back visitors from all over the globe.
In terms of recovery, ATB was quick to prepare a four-phase plan, where the first phase was the lockdown and phase two signified the launch of the domestic tourism campaign.
Phase three will follow the reopening of borders to international tourists and see marketing campaigns resume.
And phase four will signal a return to the “new normal,” when tourists can explore the country again.
Certainly, the safety and security of both visitors and residents are of utmost priority for us.
That is why we introduced SAHMAN (Sanitation and Hygiene Methods and Norms), an innovative health and safety programme for local industry players aimed at improving standards of hygiene and sanitation, audited and certified by PwC.
It focuses on accommodation, food and beverage, and transportation providers – three key aspects of the tourism value chain.
Up to now more than 11,000 monitoring sessions have been held and we can certainly say that the commitment, and dedication of the industry partners are finally yielding positive results.
We also launched the Tourism Training & Certification Centre, established under ATB, which is a great initiative that highlights how crucial education is for the sustainable development of any sphere.
Aimed at improving service quality and sustaining the development of the tourism sector in Azerbaijan, the centre offers different courses by professional instructors for tourism industry members and utilises innovative teaching methods.
Another initiative is Azerbaijan 101 – an e-learning platform designed to aid the training and development of travel agents and representatives across the global tourism industry.
The collection of online training and engagement tools has been introduced for those seeking to gain in-depth knowledge about Azerbaijan’s offerings.
We have also embraced the big shift to connecting digitally to keep Azerbaijan at the front of people’s minds through webinars, virtual talks, online conferences and other activities.
BTN: How do you see the next year panning out for inbound tourism to Azerbaijan? With the resumption of international travel thankfully back on the horizon, are you expecting a busy summer season?
FS: The country is gradually recovering after the lockdown measures, and a positive dynamic has allowed the authorities to gradually ease the restrictions of the quarantine regime.
Currently the outlook is positive with a low number of Covid-19 cases in Azerbaijan and a vaccination programme underway which will hopefully enable us to restart and revitalise tourism here.
With Azerbaijan not being a mass tourism destination, it will be easier and safer for travellers to enjoy the country’s sustainable and authentic tourism experiences when the time is right.
Azerbaijan takes pride in being a destination that offers authentic experiences and we at the ATB strive to reinforce this unique feature through various projects and initiatives.
Over the coming years, certainly, we will focus on further developing new tourism products and experiences, as well as perfecting the infrastructure to cater to all the needs of our visitors and satisfy every type of traveller.
Once international travel restrictions are lifted, people will be eager to travel, and Azerbaijan will still be here offering unforgettable experiences and opportunities to take another look on this beautiful country.
With the vaccines now being rolled out, we will resume our digital marketing and communications in the world once the international travel restrictions are eased.
We will also attend some trade shows in person in the first half of this year and open representative offices in new markets.
Our plan is to continue to use webinars and other digital tools until face-to-face communication and destination promotion at trade shows, travel exhibitions and roadshow campaigns become possible again.
Large-scale international events, such as Formula 1 and UEFA Euro games, will also give us a great chance to promote Azerbaijan as a destination across the world. In the post-pandemic era, the plan is to market the destination stronger than ever before.
BTN: Describe how the lockdown experience was in Azerbaijan, and in Baku in particular, and how this compared to the bustle of normal times.
FS: The government of Azerbaijan was very quick to respond to the crisis as it established an operational headquarters under the cabinet of ministers to closely monitor the spread of Covid-19 and administer a special quarantine regime for all residents of Azerbaijan at the start of the pandemic.
This included a comprehensive range of restrictions on movement, working, trading, and operating which have been tightened or loosened during the pandemic, depending on the current virus situation.
The international borders were closed, and travel restrictions were imposed with only several categories of visitors allowed to enter the country.
Certainly, the situation in the country was and still is completely different from the pre-pandemic times when the streets were bustling with people without masks, social distancing was not on everyone’s mind and face-to-face meetings were the most common and convenient way of communication.
During the pandemic, the key priority for us is to ensure the safety and security of visitors and residents.
In terms of opportunities, the pandemic has allowed us to slow down and re-evaluate and refocus our strategy, enabling us to develop a new roadmap to shape our activities moving forward.
We have also learnt to embrace new digital technologies to keep in touch with our global partners and keep the world informed and interested in Azerbaijan.
BTN: Why is collaboration across the global travel industry essential to navigating the post-pandemic landscape?
FS: In these challenging times for the global tourism industry, it is more than ever important to reconnect and keep in contact with partners and industry stakeholders.
We as ATB are closely working with the relevant stakeholders in the sphere to make sure that once the international travel ban is lifted and borders reopen, we are ready to welcome back visitors from all over the globe.
It is also crucial to foster knowledge and experience exchange, communicate with industry players all across the value chain and share our vision and ideas on what the future holds for tourism, be it for the destinations, hospitality sector players or infrastructure developers.
This helps to share our experiences and learn from our counterparts, ensuring that the industry becomes stronger and recuperates from the crisis very soon.
BTN: What trends in travel and tourism do you see emerging in the aftermath of the crisis?
FS: Certainly, with the vaccination process underway globally, soon the borders will re-open, and the visitors will return, since we cannot live without travelling and exploring.
Travel in the “new normal” may never be the same again, but different does not mean worse and we can expect it to be healthier, less crowded, more sustainable.
Travellers will definitely prioritize responsible, eco-friendly, socially-conscious tourism.
They will trust destinations with good governance and health systems, and many health protocols adopted during the pandemic will remain, such as social distancing and travelling to less crowded areas.
Moreover, people are now seeking out authentic travel with experiential and transformative experiences that promise genuine cultural immersion.
Azerbaijan has many inimitable opportunities for tourists looking for responsible travel experiences.
As a tourism destination, we are endeavouring to make sure that the local industry adapts to the new demands of travellers and provides the best travel experiences in the “new normal” following the pandemic.
BTN: Have you had any positive changes in your own outlook in reaction to the crisis?
FS: The spread of Covid-19 has forced us to live in unprecedented times and the tourism industry globally has suffered immensely from border closures and bans on travel.
Certainly, one of the biggest challenges has been not being able to meet in person and therefore having to adapt to working online and promoting the destination through webinars, online trade shows and other digital means.
However, a crisis does not only bring challenges, but also new opportunities and possibilities for growth.
The pandemic allowed us to re-strategize, utilize novel opportunities and means of promotion and communication, strengthen the cooperative ties with our partners from all over the globe.
We were able to focus on reinforcing the existing assets of the destination, promoting knowledge and capacity building, contributing to community development through various initiatives.
Undoubtedly, the idea of “slowing down” is alien to those of us in the travel industry.
We have always strived to reach higher, move faster, see and experience more.
While the world gradually recovers from the pandemic, I am sure of a prosperous tomorrow, when we will emerge stronger than ever.
Find out more about the Azerbaijan Tourism Board on the official website.