After the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic on Uzbekistan’s tourism industry, it stands as an important facet of rebuilding after the crisis. The industry features as a strategic economic sector in the country’s latest development strategy — the New Uzbekistan Development Strategy for 2022-2026 — which lays out the government’s development ambitions for the next five years. Those ambitions envision increasing the volume of services by three times, with the creation of 3.5 million new jobs in the tourism sector. The number of local tourists is hoped to reach over 12 million, while the number of foreign tourists is hoped to hit 9 million.
The pandemic has had a negative impact on tourism worldwide, with the closure of borders, various restrictions on the travel of tourists from foreign countries, quarantine and vaccination requirements, and other problems. Important decisions were made in Uzbekistan to support the industry through such a difficult period. At the beginning of 2020, Uzbekistan aimed to increase the number of tourists visiting the country to 7.5 million by the end of 2020; however, COVID-19 likely had a significant impact, delaying hoped-for progress in the tourism sector.
In what ways did the Uzbek government support the tourism industry through the pandemic? Starting with Presidential Decrees No. 5969 of March 19, 2020, and No. 5978 of April 3, 2020, several benefits were provided to businesses, including those in the tourism sector, during the pandemic. Tour operators, travel agents, and hotels were exempt from land taxes and property taxes until December 31, 2020, and their social taxes were reduced. The calculation of property taxes, land taxes, and fines for the use of water resources for accommodation facilities, restaurants and other entities with existing property were suspended, and no measures have been taken to collect the tax debt. Income taxes from individual entrepreneurs in the tourism sector (such as family guest house operators, guides, and artisans) were reduced by 30 percent.
Several additional presidential decrees issued early in the pandemic, between March and May 2020, served to provide further support for the tourism industry.
Among the priorities serviced by tourism development are job creation and improving living standards, both necessary for economic growth and social stability. Tourism is labor, rather than capital, intensive. This means that the tourism sector has a great capacity to create new jobs in times when unemployment has reached unthinkable rates. As of January 2021, more than 1.6 million Uzbek migrants were working abroad, according to the Ministry of Economic Development and Poverty Reduction of Uzbekistan. That so many travel abroad each year in search of work demonstrates the need for domestic job creation, and the tourism industry is one sector with potential for growth. In general, the development of tourism infrastructure in Uzbekistan should lead to the creation of new jobs in the country. These would include positions in various service sectors, such as in hotels and restaurants, but also small businesses connected to the wider tourism industry, such as handicrafts and other artisans. The tourism sector also does not necessarily demand complicated qualifications or extensive education.
International cooperation is necessary to further improve the situation. After all, no country in the region can ensure its security and sustainable economic development by suppressing the coronavirus in its territories if the virus continues to spread in neighboring countries. Therefore, it is important to develop cooperation between the Central Asian states on measures to reduce the impact of the pandemic on tourism across the region.
Moreover, against the background of global travel restrictions, the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization stressed the importance of international dialogue and cooperation in addressing the negative impact of the coronavirus, including close cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO), acting jointly with countries affected by the pandemic, and the need to be prepared to emphasize the sustainability of tourism and support recovery of this sector.
The Uzbek Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Heritage is developing a strategy specifically for the development of tourism in Uzbekistan until 2030, taking into account the global crisis and new competitive conditions in the industry. Future development of tourism in Uzbekistan will require a non-traditional approach to attracting travelers. The government’s strategy will also be linked to the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, hopefully cementing progress in the industry for years to come.