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Uzbekistan Turns To Foreign Social-Media Stars To Boost Tourism

Uzbek world-heritage sites such as Samarkand are potential tourist magnets. (file photo)

It is a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood fairy-tale ending.

Popular Internet travel bloggers Raquel da Silva and Miguel Mimoso stood together atop the 45-meter-tall Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara at sunrise gazing into each other's eyes before a probable kiss.

Behind them, the well-preserved medieval Central Asian city, including the turquoise onion domes of the Kalyan Mosque, stretching into the distance.

For those who know Uzbekistan, it is not the first -- or probably even the 100th image -- that comes to mind at the mention of the former Soviet state.

"We're going to be honest," the Instagram post accompanying the image and celebrating the couple's 500,000th follower, begins. "We didn't know much about this country. Actually, almost anything."

Most of their millennial followers are probably in the same boat.

Which is precisely why Uzbekistan -- once one of the most closed countries in the world -- invited the Portuguese couple -- along with nearly 100 other international social-media influencers -- to wow their followers with creative photos and videos featuring its ancient cities.

"One of the problems for our tourism industry is the absence of quality content about Uzbekistan," Behruz Hamzaev, the 30-year old strategy adviser to the country's tourism chairman and the person who came up with the idea, told RFE/RL. "There is not much out there. So, we wanted to fill the Internet."

The influencer event is the latest in a series of unprecedented steps by the country's government to open itself to the outside world and drive economic growth for its 33 million citizens. Uzbek tourism revenue has the potential to more than double in the next few years, analysts say.

Yet the government's open embrace of foreign bloggers contrasts with its own weak record on social-media freedom at home. Uzbekistan only last year eased access for its citizens to Facebook and YouTube -- the two largest social-media networks in the world -- and still detains bloggers for posts criticizing top government officials.

The authorities "want to show themselves as hip, cool, and open to the world," and though they have made some progress "they are still interested in controlling the online world," says Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

'Kick-Ass Content'

Uzbekistan organized the five-day trip at the end of last month for 93 influencers from 40 countries. Many came from Asia and the Middle East, where Uzbekistan has strong historical and cultural ties as well as good flight connections, Hamzaev said.

While many countries, including Georgia and India, organize such influencer events, Uzbekistan's was among the largest, longest, and most diverse in terms of blogger origin, says Sophie Ibbotson, the founder of Maximum Exposure Limited, a consultancy company which promotes tourism in emerging markets including Uzbekistan.

"There is a feeling that Uzbekistan is among the final frontiers of tourism and the next big thing," Ibbotson says. "People who are influencing travel destinations want to be there ahead of everyone else."

Uzbekistan's event -- which kicked off with a one-day congress in Tashkent -- was attended by influencers focusing on travel, food, lifestyle, fashion and beauty, including Iranian model Sadaf Masaeli.

The foreign bloggers "created world-class, kick-ass content," said Hamzaev, whose understanding of tourism and English slang were honed as a tour guide in his teens.

Hamzaev estimates the photos and videos produced during the project have already been seen by 150 million people.

A 10-minute video of the Uzbek trip made by Indonesian influencer Atta Halilintar, who is among the top Asian YouTube stars, received more than 1.2 million views while his Instagram posts have received more than 400,000 likes each.

Uzbekistan in May launched direct flights to Indonesia, the world's fourth-largest country by population and -- like Uzbekistan -- a predominately Muslim nation.

Bukhara plays an important role in Islamic history and culture and thus is a potential pilgrimage destination for Muslims.

Hamzaev estimates the influencer event cost the state about $250,000. However, he claims it would cost $6 million to $7 million to get similar quality video and photos to such a wide audience through traditional media like television and print, he said.

100 Years Of Solitude

The historic centers of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Shakhrisabz are on UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage lists, making them potential magnets for tourists.

However, those cities have been pretty much off-limits to foreigners over the past 100 years -- first during the Soviet period and later during the reign of Islam Karimov, the authoritarian president of independent Uzbekistan who ruled until his death in 2016.

While many other Soviet states rushed to embrace globalization in 1991, Karimov kept his nation isolated with cumbersome visa regimes.

His government did not actively promote tourism.

News about Uzbekistan -- if it appeared at all -- tended to focus on forced child labor, human rights abuses, repression of religious minorities, and environmental problems, as well as the trials of Gulnara Karimova, the former president's extravagant daughter who is currently in prison.

"I had one of the least recognized brands in all of the world, although I knew we have such great potential," Hamzaev said.

Tourism has received new life under Karimov's successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who increased the number of visa-free regimes from nine countries in 2017 to 65 this year.

He also increased by half the number of simplified visa regimes to 75 countries and expanded the number of foreign flights.

That has opened the tourist floodgates. Uzbekistan expects to receive about 6.3 million tourists this year – more than double the figure for 2017, according to Hamzaev.

It has also sparked a building boom. The country has opened more than 300 hotels since 2017.

However, Uzbekistan is still in need of more flights and more hotels, especially at the top end, Ibbotson says. It also needs a better-trained workforce.

"If Uzbekistan wants to compete with more popular tourist destinations, it has to improve its service," she says.

Even though Uzbekistan's tourism take nearly doubled last year to about $1.2 billion, the earnings are still below those of the three South Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well Central Asian neighbor Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan's tourism revenue could climb to $5 billion by the middle of the next decade if the country continues its course of opening up to the world, says Boban Markovic, a senior research analyst at the Washington-based Institute of International Finance.

To reach that result, it will need to appeal to younger tourists who are currently avoiding the country. The majority of international tourists visiting Uzbekistan are over the age of 50, Hamzaev said.

Presidential Selfie

The 62-year-old Mirziyoev met with the influencers during their visit to Samarkand and joined them for a selfie, a moment that Hamzaev said symbolized the new, open Uzbekistan. "I think this is the best example of him saying we are doing the reforms and opening the country," he said.

Mirziyoev's eldest daughter, Saida Mirziyoeva, who in April was named deputy head of a state agency in charge of communications and media regulation, addressed the bloggers on the first day of their trip.

Hamzaev added that Mirziyoev and other top officials gave their support to the influencer trip, which enabled him to go all out for the bloggers.

If a model blogger needed a local photographer, they found one. If a photoblogger needed a model to grace his or her shot, they got one.

If Raquel and Miguel wanted to go atop the minaret in Bukhara -- which is not allowed -- they organized it. If the pair needed a drone to capture their memorable moment from above, they got the permission.

"We gave them enough freedom so they can do their work," Hamzaev said.

However, the government needs to offer the same freedom and access to its own bloggers, said Swerdlow.

The human rights researcher pointed out that Mirziyoev has yet to give an interview to either an Uzbek journalist or blogger after three years in power.

"We recognize that the government really wants to engage with bloggers and support their work," he said. "Yet, Uzbekistan is still authoritarian and the lines you should not cross on social media are not clear."

"You can't have social media flourish unless it is going to be truly free," he added.

Less than three weeks after the influence event ended, 29-year-old Uzbek blogger Nodirbek Hojimatov was sentenced to 10 days in jail for posting a letter on Facebook criticizing local officials.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.