Azerbaijan Tourism: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

Azerbaijan Tourism, Community-Based Tourism in Azerbaijan: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

When some people travel, their itineraries do not venture beyond well-explored tourist destinations. As for me, I’ll admit that Paris and Barcelona are spectacular, but something about elbowing your way through crowds of tourists to catch a glimpse of a well-known monument (one you’ve already seen countless times in photographs) fails to satisfy me.

I’ve grown to truly relish travel to obscure, isolated places little-known to the outside world, where a relative lack of globalization has preserved sceneries, cultures and lifestyles that are wholly unfamiliar. But what’s the best way to access these places, while having the most meaningful experiences while you’re there?

How can a privileged western tourist engage in tourism that benefits both the traveler and the community?

I’d heard about community-based tourism (CBT) projects several times in the past. Maybe this was just my innate skepticism, but I pictured an unsettling image of tourists heading off to Mongolia, spending the weekend in a yurt, and watching the locals put on an ethnographic show tailored to westerners. Many of us who travel, particularly off-the-beaten path, strive to be mindful of the negative impact tourism can have on communities–particularly those in impoverished and politically contentious areas where cultures face internal and external challenges that threaten their integrity and future. Do the CBT funds even benefit these people directly? How can a privileged western tourist engage in tourism that benefits both the traveler and the community?

I currently live in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. This is a city that is modernizing impossibly fast, and where luxury hotels are being built at an astonishing rate. Before I even got here, I was eager to gain access to unexplored corners of the country, and to have an experience truly unique to Azerbaijan. Several people recommended CBT Azerbaijan, an organization run by former Peace Corps volunteers. This non-profit strives to connect rural communities with travelers seeking access to the people and natural beauty of remote regions.

Azerbaijan Tourism: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

Though community-based tourism projects exist worldwide, and operate in a myriad of ways, after experiencing it myself in a rural Caucasian village, I had an experience that was not only spectacular, but I also found that CBT Azerbaijan truly benefits rural communities in the country.

How does it work?

CBT Azerbaijan’s website features a list of regions and villages in which they operate, some even showing photos of and info on the local families with which one could stay. My friends and I picked the region we wanted to visit, got in touch with the local administrator, and told him our plans.

After a few days, we got the name and contact info of Xalid, a local schoolteacher living in Laza, a village of around 180 people in northern Azerbaijan. Traveling to remote regions in Azerbaijan can be tricky, particularly in the winter, but in my experience our host was perfectly willing to meet us in the largest regional city and help us arrange a shared taxi to Laza village.

Staying in Laza with Xalid cost us each around 40 dollars a night, a fee that included a home-cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food was delicious and impossibly fresh, the vegetables were grown in the outdoor garden, and all of the dairy products came from the cows in their barn. The home stays on CBT Azerbaijan typically have fairly nice amenities (i.e. electricity, running water, comfortable and clean rooms), though nearly all lack internet and western toilets (but let’s be honest, a perfected squat technique separates the travelers from the tourists).

What you do on your time is basically up to you. Laza village gave us access to some of the most stunning hiking routes in the Greater Caucasus mountain range. We also had plenty of interaction with the locals. I ended up being too tired to get up and milk the cows at 7 AM, but I’ll save that for my next CBT trip.

Azerbaijan Tourism: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

How does CBT benefit local communities?

CBT projects, and tourism in general, can be valuable tools for economic development. In the case of CBT Azerbaijan and many other projects, the proceeds go straight into the hands of the hosts and local administrators. While this in itself is great, many of these non-profits have a mission that goes beyond simply getting money into the pockets less fortunate people. Hosts in rural regions receive valuable training on fire safety, sanitation, managing finances, and more. This knowledge ultimately benefits not only the hosts themselves, but the community as a whole, as information is spread from family to family.

Tourism can also encourage people in these communities to truly recognize the value of their homes. One of the Laza locals, Elxan, expressed to me how regularly interacting with foreigners and seeing his community through their eyes made him truly appreciate its gems: “I could never live in Baku. This, for me, is paradise.”

What did I gain from the experience?

Stunning mountain scenery, delicious food and the warmth of the locals aside, my trip to Laza was unique and eye-opening.

Xalid, my host, as well as the entire population of Laza village and the Qusar region as a whole are Lezgis, one of the predominant ethnic minorities of Azerbaijan and Dagestan (a conflict-ridden federal subject of Russia in the North Caucasus). In my experiences in the former USSR, Lezgis are typically referred to as “crazy terrorists,” and backwards people inhabiting war-torn hellholes. But these descriptions were a world away from the warm, kind-hearted and impossibly hospitable people I met on my trip.

Through CBT, I gained valuable insight to the challenges faced by ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan. Xalid, a schoolteacher, lamented that even in Lezgi-majority regions, schoolchildren are permitted no more than two hours of weekly instruction in their native language, which is currently listed as “vulnerable” on UNESCO’s atlas of endangered languages. One night I attended a local concert in nearby Qusar City, and had the opportunity to enjoy a local Lezgi rap battle (yes, you read that correctly) and lezginka traditional dance.

As an aspiring linguist with an interest in language policy and minority-language revitalization projects, having faces, names, and emotions to connect to a people and struggle that was before only peripherally on my radar further fueled my passion to make a difference in this part of the world.

Azerbaijan Tourism: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

The verdict?

If you want to experience Eurasian community-based tourism at its best, CBT Azerbaijan is a fantastic way to do it. Your heart, soul, and tastebuds will be deeply satisfied.

CBT Azerbaijan’s website is currently undergoing maintenance, but if you’re interested in planning a trip and would like more information, contact Elxan at  Azerbaijan Tourism: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

About Mariana Irby

Mariana IrbyMariana was raised between quiet, clean-cut Princeton, New Jersey and dazzling, free-wheeling Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Growing up with these contrasts has led her to an insatiable appetite for travel, especially to the former USSR, Latin America and the Middle East.

Mariana earned her B.A. in 2015 from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in Russian and Linguistics and minored in French. She is fascinated by the cultural, sociolinguistic and political landscape of Central Asia and couldn’t be more excited to be spending a year in Almaty, Kazakhstan!

6 thoughts on “Azerbaijan Tourism: A Fair-Trade Spin on Travel?

  1. Avatar
    September 6, 2016

    Dear CBT Travelers,

    We would like to inform and send our new webpages:

    Thank you and we look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Avatar
    September 2, 2016

    Dear Guests,

    This is Elkhan from CBT Azerbaijan, thanks for being interested in CBT. Well, for further information please do not hesitate to contact me at E-mail:

    Would be pleasure to see you in Azerbaijan,
    Best Regards

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Humphrey
    December 2, 2015

    Both website and email are still down, but CBT Azerbaijan is still operating and you can contact Elkhan by phone or SMS at +994 515202822

  4. Avatar
    August 28, 2015

    Is this still an option? The website seems to be down still and the email I sent was bounced back.

  5. Avatar
    August 15, 2015

    Thanks for the post. I was looking into CBT Azerbaijan, but saw the site was down and I wasn’t sure how to contract them.
    I’ve heard good things about the program and thank you for listing the contact information.

  6. Avatar
    August 15, 2015

    Thanks for the article. I heard about CBT Azerbaijan and I had plans to visit in October (during my trip to The UAE and Oman), but I saw their site was down.
    I just emailed the contact you mentioned and I hope I can make it work.
    Thanks again for leaving their contact information.

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