On July 15, Uzbekistan will introduce an electronic visa system as well as a scheme allowing visa-free entry for up to five days while in transit for citizens of 101 countries.
The twin moves build on earlier efforts to open Uzbekistan further to international travelers. The push to liberalize Uzbekistan’s visa regime in 2018 came after a false start in late 2016.
After his inauguration in early December 2016, one of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s first moves was to announce that Tashkent would be rolling back visa requirements for citizens of 27 countries, to go into effect in April 2017. The announcement also promised electronic visas by 2018. But a few weeks later, in early January 2017, both plans were punted to 2021.
As the mish-mish (the Uzbek word for rumor or gossip) had it at the time, the National Security Service (SNB), opposed the visa liberalization plan. The powerful SNB was still headed by Rustam Inoyatov, viewed by many ahead of Islam Karimov’s death as a possible successor. Inoyatov, who headed the KGB’s successor organization in independent Uzbekistan for 23 years, oversaw some of the country’s harshest policies and worst abuses — as prime minister for 13 years, so did Mirziyoyev. Inoyatov, who took over the SNB in 1995, was a key node in Karimov’s securitized state. His removal was viewed by regional observers as an incredibly consequential development as he was viewed as an impediment to reform efforts.
Indeed, it was only after Inoyatov was sidelined formally on January 31 that Mirziyoyev again announced visa reforms. From February 1, Uzbek media reported a few days later, simplified procedures for issuing tourist visas were introduced for citizens of 39 countries, including those in the European Union, many in East Asia and the Middle East, as well as India and the United States. The simplified procedure removed the requirement for a voucher or letter of invitation and shortened the timeline for issuing a visa to two days. Citizens of seven countries — Israel, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, and Japan — were granted visa-free access for up to 30 days. The February announcement also set July 1 for the introduction of electronic visas.
On July 4, Mirziyoyev signed the next decree in this string of visa liberalization orders. The decree introduces an electronic visa system, which is set to become operational on July 15. Foreigners will be able to apply for 30-day visas online, dramatically cutting the time and effort needed to acquire an Uzbek visa — no need to travel to the closest embassy or consulate and wait. The visa will reportedly cost $20.
The second part of the decree introduces visa-free entry for foreigners from 101 countries transiting through Uzbekistan for up to five days. Travelers from the approved list of countries holding tickets to a third destination will be able to stay in Uzbekistan for up to five days without a visa. As Lonely Planet notes, “only a handful of airlines offer transit routes through Uzbekistan, though there are hopes that the new scheme will incite the opening of new routes.”
Easing the barriers to entry is sure to satisfy not just tourists and those involved in the tourism sector, but international investors as well.
Uzbekistan’s efforts to open itself up to travelers were cited by Lonely Planet, which recently listed the country second in its list of top 10 Asian destinations. “Whilst the country lags behind its neighbours in a few ways,” the article reads, “particularly regarding human rights, there is a feeling of hope that, as Uzbekistan enjoys the benefits of being welcoming to all, positive change will follow.”
Travel optimism aside, I’ll repeat what I wrote in February as a dash of cold water:
Visa reform for foreign citizens is low-hanging fruit. Arguably, the abolition of exit visas for Uzbek citizens is a more meaningful benchmark. While opening the country to foreigners is a welcome move, Uzbek citizens are still restricted in their own travels. Currently, Uzbekistan is set to get rid of the system — which requires Uzbek citizens to get a visa to travel beyond countries of the CIS — as of January 1, 2019.”