I remember the first time I entered Uzbekistan, more than a decade ago. My car, an already rather battered Isuzu Trooper, broke down in the no man’s land between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and had to be push started to make it across the border. It wasn’t an auspicious start. With a trio of friends, I nursed the car to Tashkent and Samarkand, however, and in the course of a week fell in love with the country and its people. We paid a couple of dollars to watch the ballet at the Alisher Navoi Theatre in Tashkent, and treated ourselves to sickly sweet Champagne before the performance. We posed with the bronze statue of Amir Timur by Hotel Uzbekistan, picnicked on cherries outside the Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, and climbed to the top of the minaret on the Ulugh Beg Madrassa and sat completely unguarded on the roof. No, it wasn’t high season, but I could have counted the number of other foreign tourists we saw on one hand.

Scroll forward to 2019 and Uzbekistan’s tourism industry is booming. So much so, in fact, that the country won the Gold Award for the Top Emerging Destination at the Wanderlust Readers Travel Awards. Foreign tourist arrivals doubled from 2017-18 and we will see a similar rise again this year thanks to the introduction of a visa free regime in January. A Gallup poll ranked Uzbekistan as one of the top five safest countries in the world for tourists, and international hotel brands from Hyatt to Raddison, Hilton to Marriott are finally moving in.

The rapid rise caught everyone — myself included — by surprise. It’s not that Uzbekistan doesn’t have the cultural treasures and natural beauty to justify a place at tourism’s top table, but rather that until three years ago, the country was making next to no effort to court tourists. The red tape was excessive, international flights few and far between, and marketing was non-existent. You had to be determined and persistent to get in, and prepared to put up with outdated infrastructure, poor accommodation, and surly officials once you were there.

All that changed when President Mirziyoyev came to power at the end of 2016. He announced two priorities for his presidency — investment and tourism — and has since moved hell and high water to invigorate both areas. The reforms have been ambitious, and the results are already dramatic.

In tourism, the introduction of an evisa — swiftly replaced with the current visa free regime for more than 60 nationalities — was long overdue. Uzbekistan Airways invested in new planes (Dreamliners and A350 Neos) to increase capacity and comfort on long haul routes, and added new destinations. The airline’s London office took the brave first step of inviting foreign journalists to visit and write about Uzbekistan, thawing relations with the media to such an extent that just over 18 months after the first official press trip, the BBC’s accreditation was restored.

Thirsty for a new, exotic destination — and in particular one as diverse and unknown as Uzbekistan — the UK’s travel media went wild. I personally hosted trips for the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, Travel Weekly, and even the Daily Mail: they couldn’t get enough of the glittering madrassas and mosques of Samarkand, the brutalist architecture of Tashkent, the Silk Road romance of the desert, and the possibility of sleeping in a yurt beside Lake Aidarkul, looking up at the clearest night sky you’ll ever see.

The UK media sets trends, and so we quickly saw a domino effect in other markets. UK tour operators — in particularly the likes of Wild Frontiers and Travel the Unknown — were early movers in Uzbekistan, but once Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road TV programme was broadcast in summer 2018, what’s popularly known as “the Lumley effect” took off. Saga, a company known for offering sedate itineraries for older travellers, is now running more than 30 group departures a year, and every one of their guests returns home an enthusiastic ambassador for the country. Berkshire based agent Triangle Travel sold out their first Uzbekistan tour in an hour; it won’t even run until autumn 2020.

Having pulled off what is in any circumstance a remarkable feat, Uzbekistan’s next challenge is to make sure its tourism growth is sustainable. The spectre of over-tourism already hovers over the streets and squares of Samarkand and Bukhara in the summer months, and good quality hotels are in short supply. I have three objectives for tourism development and promotion, which I hope will go some way to addressing the issue.
Firstly, we have to lengthen the tourist season, so that there isn’t a sudden influx of visitors in the summer months and a shut down in the winter. November, March, and April are cool but usually sunny with bright blue skies, which makes for very pleasant sightseeing weather.

Secondly, Uzbekistan needs to diversify its tourism products beyond cultural sightseeing. I want to see more adventure tourism, birding, archeological tours, agri- and ecotourism, and itineraries based on handicrafts, gastronomy, and even Uzbekistan’s Soviet heritage. When the Amirsoy ski resort opens this winter, Uzbekistan will add winter sports to its offering, and this will attract visitors in January and February as well.

Lastly, we need to educate the market that there’s so much more to Uzbekistan than the four UNESCO World Heritage cities. Karakalpakstan boasts one of the world’s foremost avant garde art collections at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus. Alexander the Great built a fortress at Nurata, and a complete city, Alexandria on the Oxus, at Kampir Tepe. The Golden Ring of Khorezm includes dozens of desert castles, there are more than 10,000 petroglyphs at Saramysh (including carvings of dancers and hunters), and the home stays and hiking around Sentob offer unrivalled insight into rural life.

The next few years of tourism development in Uzbekistan are critical, but as the industry has exploded from almost nothing in 36 months, the country is more than up for the challenge.

Text by Sophie Ibbotson is Uzbekistan’s Ambassador for Tourism and the author of Bradt Travel Guides’ Uzbekistan.