Caspian Energy (CE): “Today, Shahdag Mountain Resort is very popular both among local and foreign tourists. What were the results of the winter season for the resort?
Rustam Najafov, the chairman of “Shahdag Mountain Resort” CJSC: during the past winter season of 2015-2016, 75.000 visitors visited the complex, including tourists who just stayed in the hotel, skiers, and also those who simply spent time at the resort e.g. cafes and restaurants located in the territory of the center. From the very beginning, construction of the tourism center was divided into 4 phases. The first phase included purely infrastructure related work, since in order to build hotels it is necessary to have relevant infrastructure available. All these details were taken into consideration while preparing for the first phase. During the second phase, construction of facilities such as skiing runs, the snowmaking system, and hotels began. At present, we are in the second phase. Most work has already been done, and exactly for that reason, we are already ready to invite foreign tourists.
CE: And what projects are scheduled for the next phase?
Rustam Najafov: In the course of the next phase (phase III), sports grounds, football pitches, volleyball courts would be constructed. We will also build about 180 chalets and a mountain restaurant that will to be located at the highest point – 2,350 meters above sea level. During that phase, we also intend to construct a multifunctional building with the water-world, cinemas, etc. I dare say it would be a kind of a small town capable of accommodating 10 to 11 thousand tourists.
CE: What other plans of further development do you have?
Rustam Najafov: As for the future development plans, let me remind you that “Shahdag Mountain Resort” CJSC was established under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism relatively recently (on September 10, 2015) pursuant to the Decree of the President of Azerbaijan Republic, Ilham Aliyev, for the purpose of managing already completed facilities that are located in the territory of the Shahdag complex. Thus, since 2012, we began operation of the resort, however we weren’t very proactive in the international market and we had no full-fledged advertisement. The reason is that we need to achieve certain completeness and integrity; so that tourists could visit and broadly speaking not feel being at a construction site. I can say that at the current stage it is already quite possible to plan future development and view future prospects. Starting from this year, we launched a proactive PR campaign promoting Shahdag resort abroad.
CE: What possibilities would be opened for the tourist sector of the country after implementing economic reforms in the country?
Rustam Najafov: As you know, recently the visa free regime was introduced for Persian Gulf countries, and besides that, the process of the visa procedure simplification is taking place. In addition, after the Presidential Decree was passed, a possibility appeared to get an urgent visa within three days. All that taken together play a major role in development of the tourism sector in our country.
Tourism is one of the most rapidly developing sectors in the world. This is evidenced by the rating published by the UN World Tourism Organization, according to which in 2015, 1 billion 184 million people were travelling beyond boundaries of their countries; this is a huge figure, and we are encouraged by the fact that this figure keeps growing every year. Problems between countries are eliminated, visa procedures are simplified, and thus, there is an impetus for development of the tourism industry as a whole. I am very happy that we are also part of these processes; recently, it was exactly the tourism industry that proved to be the most flexible in terms of creating the attractive image of the Republic abroad. This is a quite natural phenomenon, since tourism allows a foreigner to understand the specifics of our country with all its beauties and sightseeing attractions, and definitely, it opens doors to neighboring countries playing an important role of a bridge for convergence of interests of both parties.
CE: And what can you say about development of mountain skiing tourism in Azerbaijan?
Rustam Najafov: Today, ski resorts became the most popular places for majority of tourists. Moreover, such trend, in my opinion, is quite understandable. With rapid development of mountain skiing in our country, the state could provide significant support for further growth. In addition, it is necessary to note that Azerbaijan has great development potential for mountain skiing tourism, and it could have significant impact on development of domestic and inbound tourism in the country as a whole.
I can safely say that the number of those willing to ski is actively growing. If during the early years of the complex, there were 5-10% of skiers, now their number increased up to almost 50%. The second positive factor is that in addition to our tourism center, the Tufandag Summer-Winter Tourism Complex was opened in Gabala. We do not view them as our competitors, since it is important to understand that people who often go skiing are fond of visiting various resorts. And it is absolutely normal that they are willing to try something different from what they are used to, new pistes, and new systems, experience new difficulties in order to get new sensations and to diversify their skiing. As far as I know, this year, 35,000 people visited Tufandag, and 75,000 people visited Shahdag. In total, it makes 110,000 persons, and it is a rather good indicator, given the size and the population of our country. I believe that the winter tourism growth trend is rapidly going up.
CE: And what is the situation with teaching skiing to newcomers?
Rustam Najafov: I would like to speak about it from a strategic point of view and to describe the system of training. I am very pleased that currently we have 45 local instructors from the region working for us. In addition, during the high season we invite highly qualified instructors from foreign countries. A director of our skiing school is from France - Mr. Philippe Gayet. These specialists train our personnel and issue special certificates and licenses to them; and then in their turn these specialists can provide relevant services here (train the trainers principle); since it is impossible to work as an instructor without having a special permit. I would like to emphasize one more thing: we take full responsibility and have major interest in establishment and further operation of a ski school, because it is a very important factor, taking into consideration the fact that our population was not so actively skiing before, and there was no relevant experience as such. We recommend to all those who cannot ski to begin skiing with instructors. An instructor demonstrates how to stand and how to stem correctly and then after you savor it, you want to learn more and more, to improve, and to master new and more difficult pistes. To ensure safety, in the beginners’ zone we placed several people in special uniform who simply help people, show them around, and give them instructions, even if the people preferred not to use services of an instructor.
CE: Recently, a tourist information center Shahdag was opened, could you please tell in more details what services it provides, what information could be obtained there^
Rustam Najafov: For example, if you have not been to Shahdag before, and just heard about it while staying in the city, and you badly want to visit the resort, to ski, or simply to stay in a hotel, you can get all necessary information about everything that is happening there –hotel prices, bookings, and also there you can choose an instructor in advance and book a lesson for any time that is convenient for you. You can also book a ski-pass in advance, a trip by a cable car. Moreover, in the premises of the information center there are representatives of a rent shop, who can offer you various types of skies. Then, upon your arrival to Shahdag, everything that you chose to rent would be ready waiting for you in a locker with your name indicated on it. Therefore, you would be able to save your time.
CE: And what pistes are available today in Shahdag?
Rustam Najafov: As you know, pistes are qualified depending on their degree of complexity. In the territory of the Center, we have pistes with various degrees of complexity. And our major advantage is the fact that in Shahdag there are quite a few pistes for newcomers. In addition, we have green, blue, and red pistes. Currently, their total length is 9,049 meters. The longest piste is 2,800 meters long – it beings from the top of monogondola and goes down to the foot of the Zirve Hotel. Besides, there is one more advantage, which not many countries can boast. A so-called vertical drop. In other words, the Zirve Hotel is located at 1400 meters above sea level. Today it is the highest point from where the descend can be started is at 2,100 meters above sea level, and the vertical drop is 700 meters. Not everywhere can you find such elevation difference. It is definitely a major benefit for the country where skiing is not so well developed as in Alps and other foreign resorts.
CE: Rustam muallim, and at what level is the safety system in the territory of the Center?
Rustam Najafov: Today we have one of the best medical centers among all mountain resorts. Every little detail is taken into consideration there. The medical center has all necessary facilities, even for making surgery; various types of X-rays are available, and all types of services, including dental services, are free of charge for tourists. We also have the PACS system (Picture Archiving and Communication System), with the help of which one can connect to the world database of medical doctors; it is a well-known centralized database of patients. While a tourist is in the territory of the complex, we are fully responsible for him/her, and ready to provide any assistance according to the highest standards. Even if something happens beyond a piste, first aid is provided in any case, and everything that is necessary for human health is done. As for help on pistes, we have qualified specialists equipped with skis, also known as ski patrol.
CE: What are the advantages of the Shahdag Mountain Resort compared to other resorts in neighboring counties?
Rustam Najafov: As Shahdag is a relatively new tourist center; it was constructed using the state of art technologies. No other resorts in neighboring countries, except for Sochi, can boast the quality that we offer. In particular, the quality of cable roads, the system of snow-making where you do not need to get out of the snow tamping machine at all, and all that could be managed by means of a computer. So, the Shahdag Mountain Resort is built from scratch, and all the details have been well thought through in advance. Old resorts that are 40-60 years old were built based on a different system. Now everybody begins to realize that everything has to be integrated into a single centralized system. At the beginning, not everything was integrated, but was rather scattered out. The Shahdag infrastructure is designed to accommodate around 10 thousand tourists a day. As a whole, we are able to construct there 20-30 hotels more, and the existing infrastructure can easily accommodate all that.
CE: Could you please share your plans for the summer season?
Rustam Najafov: For most people Shahdag is associated with a winter ski resort. Of course, as nothing like that ever existed in the country before. Since the resort is relatively new, everybody plans to come there preferably in wintertime, but we want to change people’s vision of the Shahdag resort, to break that stereotype; and now we are actively working on that. Mountains are mountains, while they are covered with snow in winter, in summer they are green and fascinating, and even in summer you can find in Shahdag a lot of miraculous landscapes, rivers, rocks, enjoy quietness and clean air. It is a place to quiet down, to relax, and to enjoy rest and nature away from the hustle and bustle of the city. In summertime, a five star “Shahdag Hotel&Spa” functions and now we also plan to organize summer camping grounds for schoolchildren as a special package. We came to a conclusion, that today we should focus on package proposals in order to invite people for several days and to offer them beneficial conditions.
CE: What entertainments would be available in the territory of the Center during the summer season?
Rustam Najafov: One of the main entertainments that we offer to our guests during the summer season is extreme descent from mountaintops on a bike. We would really like our compatriots to be willing to master mountain biking. Cable lifts work during the whole season and similarly to the ski mountaineering we prepared special routes with varying difficulty levels, so that people could enjoy biking in the mountains. As of today, we have a monogondola that takes tourists to the altitude of 2,100 meters, where they can enjoy a unique view of the surrounding landscape from a skydeck. And from that altitude they can start their descend on a mountain bike. This means the breathtaking experience, a powerful adrenaline rush, a way of self-affirmation and self-confidence. I would also like to remind you that last year in Shahdag we organized the Bike Riders’ Day, so that people could enjoy biking in the mountains, as it makes your heart soar, you feel adrenaline rush and you derive enormous pleasure from that.
In addition, we have segways, quad bikes and special routes for them. We have a bobcard available; it is a vehicle without an engine that has only a steering wheel and brakes. It is driven up by the cable lift, and force of gravity makes it go down picking up the speed of up to 60-80 km per hour.
I would also like to note that now we are now actively developing the map of routes for hiking. We plan to arrange two-day, three-day long hikes, during which tourists would stay in tents. As you know, the Shahdag National Park is located very close to us. You can easily get to the very Shahdag Mountain. But you have to know that in order to come to this area you need to have special permits, and in our turn, we have special guides who are authorized to accompany guests during these hikes. Another summer entertainment is paintball, which is extremely popular; quite often groups of people come to the mountains specifically to play paintball. And on top of all that, we have a very interesting zip-line. It is a special cable over a canyon that allows propelling from one side of the canyon to the other.
For the future, we also plan to launch paragliding in summer. At present, we are negotiating with relevant state bodies in order to receive proper permits.
In addition, we want to open a special zone for trap shooting and archery. Now, together with Silk Way Helicopters we are working on opening helicopter routes from Baku to Shahdag and back. Thus, people would have an additional brand new and unique opportunity to get to Shahdag. It would inspire great interest, since I am sure that many people would like to travel by helicopter, to get a bird’s eye view of the country. There are a lot of very interesting ideas that we are working on, and I am sure that in the near future we will achieve all our goals.
CE: Will you organize any events?
Rustam Najafov: In summer, we want to organize a couple of food festivals, concerts, performances and exhibitions. We would like to organize some event every weekend so that our visitors could enjoy the festive atmosphere.
CE: Where can we get full information about all projects mentioned above and about activities of the tourist center in the electronic form?
Rustam Najafov: Our website http://shahdag.az/ is very well professionally developed and already functions in three languages. Through the website, you can easily book a hotel room, and in winter, you will be able to book an instructor, to buy a ski-pass online, and to make all necessary bookings from home without any need to go anywhere. On top of that, the site features life video, which allows following the weather forecast, the general situation, and the number of visitors. All this is extremely interesting and convenient.
Thank you for the interview