This summer Gulfies escape to Sarajevo and Baku

I’ve always had a vague impression that UAE nationals all head off to Europe for their summer holidays, sampling the cooler delights of London and Paris or the stylish beach resorts of the Cote d’Azur and Spanish costas.

But you can’t generalise about a whole country of course, and just recently I’ve come across evidence that many are more adventurous in their summer plans, willing to try out new destinations that aren’t on the traditional summer tourist trail.

Bosnia would not be many people’s idea of summer fun, but according to a recent report from Reuters many Gulf Arabs, Emiratis included, have headed off to Sarajevo and neighbouring resorts for a well-earned break.

Leaving aside the Balkans’ recent history as a genocidal war zone, you can see why. Bosnia has splendid scenery, facilities rebuilt since the 1990s war, and of course it has a rich Islamic heritage that would make many Gulf nationals feel at home.

It is also cheap. Property in some of the Bosnian resorts is competitive enough to attract permanent buyers rather than summer renters, and that has been a trend, according to Reuters, which also points to some incipient tensions with Bosnian locals over different cultural norms. I’m sure these won’t be a long-term impediment to Gulf tourism in the country.

Anyway, there is no such problem in the other example of an unexpected summer destination for Gulf tourism I came across – Azerbaijan.

Apparently, tourism from the Gulf region, and from the UAE in particular, is soaring since the “Land of Fire” decided to relax visa requirements for GCC residents last year. The Azerbaijan tourism website says there has been a 30-fold increase in UAE visitors this year since it decided to allow visa-free entry for Emiratis.

This seemed an improbably huge increase, but now I have reliable first-hand evidence to back it up. My wife and daughter are just back from their annual visit to my wife’s family in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and they report that the Azerbaijan Airlines flight was packed to and from Dubai.

I’ve made this trip many times, and it’s usually a cabin full of people all involved in some kind of commerce. This summer, however, my wife reports it was predominantly family groups of Emiratis all heading off for their annual escape from the searing heat of the Gulf.

They find Baku a cooler alternative, with a rich cultural heritage and Islamic history that makes them feel at home. It’s also close to the fine beaches of the Caspian.

Baku is my seven-year-old daughter’s second home, and she loves it there for the freedom and the outdoor life. She can live in my brother-in-law’s little house outside the city, complete with chickens, ducks and many other animals – things she doesn’t get in a Dubai apartment.

This year, the whole extended family of in-laws headed off outside Baku for a long weekend. The ancient town of Qabala in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains is now an all-year round resort, with skiing in winter and lots of other attractions in summer – not least Qabalaland, an Azerbaijan-themed pleasure park.

It was also, apparently, a top destination for Emirati tourists this year, with many hotels and villas booked out to UAE nationals. Arabic, a rare language in Azerbaijan which relies on Azeri and Russian, was widely spoken by enterprising locals who obviously saw a lucrative marketing opportunity.

I can imagine the Azerbaijan tourism marketing campaign: “Tired of the summer heat? Come to the Land of Fire”.

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