Uzbekistan hosts 25th UNWTO General Assembly Session in Samarkand

The 25th Session of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) General Assembly took place in Samarkand from 16 to 20 October. For the first time, Uzbekistan hosted the most important biennial event in the UNWTO calendar. UNWTO brings together Member States from every global region to debate and address the biggest challenges tourism is facing right now. 

Text and photos by Rudolf Thaler

Among delegations from 117 countries – including 70 Ministerial level representatives – a delegation from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Labor and Economy was also present. 

A key moment for global tourism

UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his recognition of UNWTO’s in a video message: „Tourism brings progress. As one of the biggest sectors in the global economy, it has great power to bridge cultures, generate new opportunities and promote sustainable development. But tourism is also impacted by interlinked global challenges. I know we can count on the UNWTO to carry this vision forward and together, build a better future, for people and the planet“. 

„This General Assembly represents a key moment for us as an Organization and for tourism as a sector. We weathered the storm of the pandemic, and now we have the opportunity to achieve the longterm transformation of the sector and leave a real legacy for global tourism“, said UNWTO Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili in his opening speech. „The Journey to 2030: A vision for a sector transformed“ sets out five core priorities for the years to come : (1) scale up innovation and digital transformation, (2) invest in people with a focus on human capital, education and jobs, (3) boost investments, financing and entrepreneurship, (4) foster sustainable and green transition across tourism and (5) enhance competitiveness and resilience, through statistics, market intelligence, and product development.

Minister for Ecology, Environmental Protection and Climate Change, H.E. Aziz Abdukhakimov, underscored his Government’s commitment to bolstering tourism as a pillar of national development and for the preservation of cultural heritage. Minister Abdukhakimov sent his personal greetings to SOCIETY owner and Tourism Brand Ambassador of Uzbekistan in Austria, Ms Gertrud Tauchhammer, and thanked her for the support in promoting Uzbekistan in Austria. 

Uzbekistan is an attractive destination for investing in tourism  

Uzbekistan’s President, H.E. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, underlined in his welcome address the strategic importance of Uzbekistan‘s tourism sector for the national economy and the extensive and irreversible program of reforms. The ‚open doors policy‘ grants a visa-free regime to nationals of around one hundred countries and creates favorable conditions for doing business in all subsectors of tourism. Despite pandemic restrictions, 800 infrastructure projects were implemented in two years. Over one billion (!) USD have been invested in improving tourism infrastructure in the city of Samarkand alone. The Samarkand Silk Road Tourism Center, the Amirsoy winter resort, the Valley of Legends, Zomin and Chorvok zones have become international tourist destinations. Six private airlines have been operating. 35 institutes of higher education train qualified specialists. 

The number of foreign tourists travelling to Uzbekistan has doubled. Revenues from tourist exports have increased four times. Seven million tourists are expected to visit Uzbekistan by the end of this year. By 2030, the figure should be 15 million and domestic tourist flow 25 million. 

Foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow nearly tripled from 2011 to 2022. In tourism sector 727 investment projects accounted for USD 1.9 billion in capital investment in 2022. In the last five years, 1,564 announced projects amount to USD 4.3 billion. World Heritage Sites are Bukhara (1993), cold winter deserts of Turan (2023), Itchan Kata (1990), Samarkand (2001), Shakhrisyabz (2000), Silk Roads: Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor (2023) and Western Tien Shan (2016).

UNWTO guideline „Tourism Doing Business, Investing in Uzbekistan“

Uzbekistan is attractive for visitors and investors. The UNWTO investment guideline „Tourism Doing Business, Investing in Uzbekistan“ highlights the impressive transformation the country has experienced in the last decade towards an open and market-driven economy. Reforms launched since 2017 created the foundation for a stable and growing economy. The report describes how its rich endowment of natural resources and cultural heritage, complemented by attractive incentive schemes offered for private investment and foreign direct investment (FDI), have been creating a favorable business environment. Uzbekistan, known as the state of the Great Silk Road, stands out for its strategic geographical location in the heart of Central Asia and well-developed infrastructure that facilitate travel and trade across continents. 

Uzbekistan’s economy is robust. Prior to the pandemic, Uzbekistan was one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The annual GDP growth was 5.35% in the last five years, the projected economic growth 2023 to 2026 is on an 5 % path. FDI inflows nearly tripled from 2011 to 2022. In the tourism sector 727 investment projects accounted for USD 1.9 billion in capital investment last year. 1,564 announced projects in the last five years (2019-2023) amount to USD 4.3 billion. Education, innovation and sustainability are in the center. The Tourism Academy in Samarkand in cooperation with UNWTO was officially opened by Minister Aziz Abdukhakimov and the UNWTO Secretary General. Uzbekistan ranks 69th in the Ease of Doing Business. The tourism sector in 2022 contributed to 41% of all service exports. Tourism is one of the most thriving sectors in Uzbekistan, particularly in terms of tourism-related services. 

Strong recovery of global tourism after COVID pandemic 

When the pandemic hit, global tourism came to a standstill and lost 4.2 trillion USD. Global tourism remains well on track to reach 80% to 95% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. International tourism recovered 84% of pre-pandemic levels in the period January – July 2023. An estimated 700 million tourists travelled internationally between January and July 2023, about 16% fewer than in 2019. 

By regions the Middle East saw the best results with arrivals exceeding 20% of pre-pandemic level. Europe, the world’s largest destination region, reached 91% of pre-pandemic level, supported by a robust intra-regional demand. Africa recovered 92% of pre-pandemic visitors, with Ethiopia +28%, Tanzania +19% and Morocco +15%. North Africa +8%, Central America +2%, Southern Mediterranean Europe +1% exceeded pre-pandemic levels. Americas reached 87% and Asia & Pacific climbed to 61%. The challenging economic environment could weigh on spending matters over the remainder of the year, with tourists increasingly seeking value for money, traveling closer to home and making shorter trips. 

FDI boom in tourism 

„Today more than ever, investing in education, innovation, technology and empowering youth through an entrepreneurial mindset need to be part of the public-private cooperation to assure the sustainable growth of the sector“, says UNWTO Executive Director Natalia Bayona. Tourism is the top employer of youth. Up to 50% of all it’s workers are aged 25 years old or younger. Up to 25% of tourism workers in the European Union have low-level qualifications. 882.000 global tourism jobs per year will require vocational training until 2030. 

Global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) grew 64% in 2021, reaching already USD 1.6 trillion and declined 12% in 2022 to USD 1.3 trillion. Developing countries accounted for 70% of global  FDI in 2022. The total value of announced greenfield projects in the service sector grew by 68% from 2021 to 2022. During the last five years (2018-2022) FDI in tourism have been booming. 2,415 announced projects representing a total capital investment of USD 175.5 billion. It means an average investment of USD 72.6 million per project. Of these 66% were in hotel infrastructure, 16% in technology and innovation for the sector and 9% in tourism entertainment. Venture capital (VC) funding in travel and tourism reached USD 48 billion in the past five years. 27% were invested in the record year 2021, as a result of the pandemic. In this period 40% of VC funding went to travel startups, 25% to hospitality and 10% to air transportation. 

China attracted the highest number of greenfield tourism FDI projects between 2018 and 2022, with around 15% of the total market share of the Asia and Pacific region. (number of projects and USD billion)

– North America 232 projects / 10.4 billion 

– Latin America & Caribbean 340 / 27.9 

– Europe 1,004 / 51.1

– Africa 101 / 7.73

– Middle East 177 / 12.39

– Asia & Pacific 517 / 65.1 

Magic Samarkand is the World Tourism Capital 2023

As the host city of the 25th UNWTO General Assembly the ancient city of Samarkand became the World Tourism Capital 2023 and the focus of international tourism attention. Around 1.700 guests were received at the newly built Samarkand International Airport or at the High-Speed-Train-Station, connecting the capital Tashkent with Samarkand. Samarkand is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. Major monuments among the 483 cultural and historical sites you can admire in Samarkand are for instance the famous Registan Square with its mosque and madrasas, the Bibi-Khanym mosque, the Shah-i-Zinda complex, the Gur-Emir mausoleum and the Ulugh Beg observatory. Samarkand linked China, Persia and Europe on the old Silk Road and was a centre for trade, culture and science. The city is like an open air museum and since 2001 an UNESCO World Heritage site. The Samarkand Silk Road Tourism Center was launched in August 2023. The modern Congress Hall, Expo Center, several top hotels and huge recreation area hosted all the events of the General Assembly including an impressive Cultural Night with fireworks at the amphitheater in the ‚Eternal City‘, a 21st century homage to ancient Samarkand. 

Best Tourism Villages 2023 from Austria and Uzbekistan 

54 villages from all regions around the globe were selected from almost 260 applications. The World Tourism Organisation listed Best Tourism Villages 2023, highlighting the best examples of tourism for rural development. Uzbekistan nominated Konigil in the Samarkand region, winner Sentob in the Navoi region, Sangardak in the Surkhandarya region, Uhum in the Sizzakh region, and Avval in the Fergana region. St. Anton and Schladming are now listed as UNWTO Best Tourism Villages 2023. Ms. Monika Klinger from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Labor and Economy accepted the Award as Head of the Austrian delegation. 

The 26th UNWTO General Assembly will be held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.