Uzbekistan welcomed me with a great deal of warmth, both in terms of hospitality and temperature – it was 34 degrees when I landed. Quickly navigating the new airport terminal, which had opened just days before my arrival, I was impressed by the modern infrastructure. But that was not all. Passport control took just 5-10 minutes, and would have been even quicker if not for my passport photo. The border guard couldn’t resist telling me, with a smile on his face that I looked “slightly different” in real life. I took it as a compliment.
I found the capital city of Tashkent quite expansive, green and friendly. On the streets, I noticed a sizeable number of Daewoo cars. It turns out they are produced by General Motors in local plants that have monopolized the local market. And the streets appeared crystal clean and peaceful, at any time of the day. As enticing as the streets of Tashkent are, I was keen to go underground – to check out the subway, which was unique in Central Asia until the first line of the Almaty metro opened in 2011. And I was not disappointed: there is some really impressive décor in several of the subway stations!
I was able to photograph and share the subway images with you thanks to many positive changes that are taking place in the country. Just a couple of months ago, I could have been fined and made to delete the images from my camera. Due to the archaic rules inherited from the Soviet period that considered the subway a military facility, taking photos or filming videos was strictly banned before.
Speaking of transport, did you know that Uzbekistan boasts a new high-speed rail network? Getting from Tashkent to Bukhara (around 600 km away) takes about 4 hours now instead of 8- hours by inter-city trains. If the route is extended to smaller cities along the historic Silk Road, and the rail service further improved, I am sure Uzbekistan could see a rapid increase in visitors, boosting local and international tourism alike.
This is a place where you can literally touch history. As I sat on Registan Square in Samarkand, I could hear the voice of my history teacher telling stories about the powerful empire of the legendary Tamerlane who, I must say, is notoriously remembered by most Georgians and our neighbours in the Caucasus for the cruelty this military leader widely practiced during his disastrous invasions. Back in school, I thought Syr Daria and Amu Daria were just beautiful names in books. Sitting on the square, however, I could picture all those ancient merchants and camels crossing the land between these two rivers, later to arrive in my hometown of Tbilisi.
I found people to be very sociable here. Maybe it’s because I’m from Georgia, which has historically been a part of the Silk Road, and then later the Soviet Union. Or maybe it’s because, unlike many people of my generation, I can speak Russian fluently. That certainly surprised the locals, in a positive way. English is rarely understood or spoken in this part of the country, and not at all if you travel deeper. Although, the language doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s safe and friendly. According to Gallup’s Law and Order Index, Uzbekistan is #5 in the list of the safest countries in the world.
I wasn’t able to find recent data on the website of the World Tourism Organization, but if we can trust official statistics, some 2.7 million tourists explored Uzbekistan in 2017. It’s hard to know how many of these people were non-resident tourists, but nonetheless, this number could be so much larger, in my humble opinion.
Considering my background in tourism and hospitality management, I’ll allow myself to say that – based on my first impressions – Uzbekistan has enormous tourism potential. Indeed, transforming the country’s tourism sector could be a major driver of development and further economic growth.
I have seen firsthand how tourism has benefited Georgia: thanks to ongoing government support, the number of visitors to my country has tripled in the last 6 years, increasing from about 2 million visitors in 2010 to more than 6 million in 2016. In fact, I see three important similarities between the two countries: amazing people, a magical history … and of course, great food!
I met some truly dedicated and passionate people here, who I believe will take this country to a new level, helping it achieve ambitious development goals and implement the reform agenda. Next time, I hope to explore eastern Uzbekistan. Who would like to join me somewhere in the Fergana Valley?
Photos & story by Tako Kobakhidze
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