A couple of months back, when your correspondent visited Azerbaijan on assignment for Monocle, entry procedures at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev airport were somewhat bizarre. Visitors queued at a booth to get their passports stamped by border control, then queued at a desk to apply for a visa, then stood around a bit waiting for their visa, and finally queued again at the first booth to present their visa.
It seems that we got off lightly. On 15 October, Azerbaijan’s government, with the whimsy characteristic of tyrannies, suddenly and without warning changed the rules: henceforth, visas will be issued only in advance, by Azeri embassies. A number of bewildered travellers found themselves being deported, or having to pay their way onto flights to places where their passports would be more welcome.
Azerbaijan has, like every sovereign state, the right to impose whatever restrictions on visitors it pleases. Azerbaijan’s citizens would also be correct in observing that it’s not always easy for them to get visas for the countries whose rebuffed citizens have been blogging venomously about Azerbaijan’s about-face. But it’s nevertheless very hard to perceive Azerbaijan’s decision to strew bureaucratic obstacles in front of potential visitors as other than counter-productive.
Bordering Azerbaijan to the north-west, another former Soviet republic has taken steps in the opposite direction, briskly abolishing many of its entry restrictions. Georgia’s ambassador to the UK, Giorgi Badridze, properly notes that it’s not his place to comment on other countries’ arrangements, but is enthusiastic about what visa liberalisation has done for his.
“Georgia is completely free to visit for nearly half the world’s countries,” he says. “And we’ve just increased the length of the free stay from 90 days to one year, with no restrictions on doing business.”
It’s part, says Badridze, of Georgia’s determination to be an open, liberal country – Badridze notes that the World Bank has just rated Georgia 11th in the world for ease of doing business. The benefits have also been noticeable in the tourist trade. Astonishingly, given that Georgia hosted a decent-sized war in 2008, Badridze says that 2009 was the Georgian tourist trade’s best summer since the country became independent in 1991. He believes that, once the money is counted, 2010 will have been even better.
“It may be a direct or indirect result [of the visa liberalisation],” he says, “but tourism is growing not just rapidly, but dramatically.”
Azerbaijan’s reasons for pulling up the drawbridge can only be wondered at – the regime is not known for its transparency. But Azerbaijan’s government is doing few favours for its country, a fascinating place which could become a major tourist draw, or for itself – this kind of move can only prompt people to wonder what they’re trying to hide.