Tours To Azerbaijan — The Country That Once Banned Anthony Bourdain — Are Up By 322% In 2018

The reason for Anthony Bourdain’s ban from Azerbaijan? He visited Nagorno-Karabakh.

I however did not.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nagorno-Karabakh until now (like I was), it’s a hotly contested area that’s technically a part of Azerbaijan, but is surrounded, and occupied by Armenia. Since 1988 tensions here have been high. Even leading to a war in 1992 between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Nearly 25,000 people lost their lives, and, in the end, Armenia seized control of the area. Today, most people living in this region are Armenian, despite it being recognized to most of the outside world as a territory of Azerbaijan.

Foreigners are not welcome here. And Azerbaijan is very, very clear about that. There’s even said to be a list of some 700 people who are no longer welcome into Azerbaijan as a result of visiting this region. So basically, if you want to visit Azerbaijan, don’t follow Bourdain’s lead on this one.

And most people aren’t. Opting instead to visit the more well-known, and less contentious, parts of Azerbaijan, such as Baku, Lahic and Sheki.

But what’s causing such an increase in interest in visiting this relatively unheard of (until now) part of the world? Well, one big reason in particular, and that’s a new, easier, and much cheaper, visa process. Because before January 10th, 2017 getting a visa to enter Azerbaijan was no easy (or cheap) feat. It involved the need for an invitation letter and the end cost for the visa was somewhere around $130.

Today, single entry tourist e-visas are $24 ($20 for the e-visa, plus a $4 processing fee) and they can easily be obtained through the country’s government website. Within three to five working days e-visas are approved and applicants are emailed their golden ticket into the country. While obtaining an e-visa is a relatively easy process, it’s still not possible to get a visa on arrival at Baku Airport, or at any land border crossings into Azerbaijan. For now, you need a physical copy of your e-visa in hand when you arrive at immigration, otherwise you’re out of luck

So, thanks to this much easier (and less stressful) e-visa process, more and more travelers are heading there. Last year, Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev stated that the number of tourists heading into Azerbaijan was up 21% over previous years.

Naturally, between the news of this tiny, relatively unknown country banning Bourdain and a new e-visa process which was causing quite the buzz among travelers-in-the-know, my curiosity was piqued. I had to visit this country that has seen so much tension, and change, in recent years.

Now was the time to visit Azerbaijan.

This last year alone, tour company Intrepid Travel saw a 322% increase in customers wanting to experience Azerbaijan for themselves, compared to last year. Particularly from customers in North America.

After sifting through a handful of tour options, I decided to go with Intrepid Travel’s Highlights of Azerbaijan and Georgia 10-day tour. Intrepid is one of only a handful of tour companies leading regular tours through the country, and this tour in particular has seen an increase in interest by 132% globally, and by 200% from North American travelers alone.

The tour seemed like a great introduction to the country’s capital city, Baku, as well as smaller cities like Lahic and Sheki. Heading there, I was soon understood much about the country’s sometimes tumultuous history, while getting better acquainted with the people – who are some of the loveliest locals you’ll find anywhere. The country felt neither European or Asian. Neither old or new. Neither beautiful or ugly. It simply felt like a country that’s trying to find its place in this world. Which is totally understandable for a country that only separated from the Soviet Union declaring their independence in 1991.

Head to Baku for history and architecture. Head to Lahic and Sheki for nature and the locals.

Baku is home to countless architectural and cultural gems, both old and new. Everything from the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center to the city’s iconic Flame Towers to museums designed to resemble the impressive carpets on display inside. Entering the Old City, places like the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs stand next to caravanserais and bathhouses, all in perfect harmony with the modern city that lies just steps away.

Heading out of Baku, villages like Lahic are beyond delightful. Small shops line the walled cobblestone streets filled with everything from handcrafted pieces of copper jewelry to carpets and spices. Getting to Lahic involves a bit of off-roading, heading along mountainside roads that eventually lead to rocky paths that wind their way between steep cliffs. The only accommodations in town are quaint guest houses with few amenities, but plenty of personality. It’s these places that give you a feel for the culture and traditions (and hardships) of this area of the world. Especially with the Greater Caucusus looming in the distance.

Traveling from Lahic to Sheki, which was once a stop on the Silk Road, Sheki is still the place to find some of the best silk and handcrafted goods in the country. The town’s main bazaar is a fascinating place where time has almost stood still. While you can find just about anything and everything here, it’s the locals that make this place worth checking out. Men gather drinking tea, talking amongst themselves, selling everything from live chickens to fresh bread in the streets, while the women make their way through the market, shopping for the day in a scene that feels Soviet-era-esque and almost frozen in time.

Now that I’ve returned home from my trip throughout Azerbaijan, I still have no plans to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, my curiosity and interest in learning about this intriguing country being satisfied. I am however excited to return in time to see how the country develops in upcoming years, reacting to the influx of tourists traveling there.

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