I’ve been in Uzbekistan for a week now, and I can say that while the people and the sights are wonderful, there’s going to be a lot more work than I expected to produce a third edition of the Bradt travel guide. That’s partly because it’s proved very hard to tie up what the maps in the book say and the vérité on the ground, together with lots of changes to street names (and transliteration issues too), but it’s also due to the way that Uzbekistan is changing and opening up, in particular for tourism.
Islam Karimov, the strong man who kept hold of power after the Soviet Union broke up, and created a very effective police state, died in September 2016 and was replaced in a very fake election by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who had been prime minister since 2003. It was assumed that he would maintain the same very tough political system, and that talk of reform shouldn’t be taken too seriously – but once he had retired Rustam Inoyatov, who had been Karimov’s secret police head for 23 years, at the end of January 2018, it has become clear that the reforms are for real. Uzbek society and economy are opening up, human rights activists are returning from exile, and serious efforts are being made to develop tourism, which has obvious potential to be a gold mine, given that the great Silk Route cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are all in Uzbekistan.
It used to be necessary to get a Letter of Invitation from a helpful tour company in order to obtain a visa – this is no longer needed. In July 2018 an e-visa system was introduced (though it’s still rather confusing, in my experience), and citizens of some nations don’t need a visa at all. In September visa-free travel was extended to French citizens, a few days ahead of a visit by Mirziyoyev to Paris. There’s talk of following Georgia and Kyrgysztan in abolishing visas for virtually all countries, but at the moment the official view is that tourism to Georgia has probably developed faster then the infrastructure can cope with (the secret police are perhaps still capable of putting a spanner in the works as well) – as the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia (six editions now!) and various blog posts, I have a lot of sympathy with that view. One thing they have done is to introduce Spanish high-speed trains from Tashkent to Samarkand, Bukhara and Shakrisabz. In fact what I want is to see them abolish the Soviet system of registration (where the police have to be informed where you’re staying every night, and you have to keep the paper slips to prove it). It’s a damn pain, and when they’re talking of making it easier for people to stay with Uzbek friends and to go hiking and camping, this makes life complicated. It seems that immigration officers don’t check when you leave the country now (I haven’t tested this yet), but hotels use an online system which throws a conniption if there are unexplained gaps in your record.
Lots of other things are getting easier – tourists can buy an Uzbek SIM for just a couple of dollars, there still aren’t many ATMs but the number is increasing (they’re mostly in top-end hotels), and the currency has been allowed to float, wiping out the black market, or rather letting everyone change at the true rate (but you do still have to haggle eg for taxis). Online booking, eg for trains and planes, is possible and of course Booking.com and Hostelworld.com have become the obvious way for independent travellers to book accommodation. More and more people, in hotels, hostels, restaurants and elsewhere speak English and German. The number of places where you can’t take photos is far smaller than it was, and in particular you can take photos in Tashkent’s gorgeous Metro. In fact there used to be passport checks to enter the metro – there are still plenty of police with metal-detector wands there, but they never bother tourists, and hardly anyone else, as far as I can see. Museum tickets used to be very cheap, with a swingeing extra charge to use a camera, but now the tickets costs slightly more – still just two or three dollars – and photography is included. I’ve noticed in the last five years or so that the world’s art galleries have accepted that everyone has a phone now and have stopped preventing photography except for special exhibitions and specific loans.
On the down side (but this began in Soviet times), there’s been some rather over-enthusiastic restoration of historical monuments, while others are still in a tumbledown state. New pedestrian boulevards have been smashed through old towns to link tourist sights (the three Ms – mosques, madrassas and mausoleums), and it’s particularly shocking that some of the remaining old quarters have been walled off so the tourists can’t accidentally get lost. This is particularly so when it’s the old Jewish quarter that has been walled off.