Uzbekistan is a country with huge, though still largely under-developed (and unrecognised), potential for the tourism industry. For millennia untold, this region has been a hub – a crossroads and a meeting point – at the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Its archaeological sites, monuments and museums bear witness to a long history of civilizational contact and exchange between peoples, languages, religions and myriad manifestations of tangible and intangible culture. To visit Uzbekistan is to witness a chronicle of world history, inscribed in the landscape, the physiognomy of the people, and the built environment ‒ from ancient fortresses and temples to modern urban architecture.
Tourist itineraries generally focus on the famous Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Each of them has important monuments to admire, and museums full of wonderful antiquities, but they also have a vibrant modern existence ‒ as can be glimpsed in the bazaars teeming with life and colour, offering an enticing array of fruits, vegetables and other temptations. There are, too, quiet, tree-lined back streets that seem to transport the visitor back to another age. Other cities, less frequently visited ‒ such as Termez, Andijan, Karshi and Nukus ‒ not only have excellent museums and important historical sites, but their own distinctive cultures and traditions. As for Tashkent, the capital city, tourists often regard it merely as a gateway to the ‘real’ treasures of the region. Yet Tashkent, too, was a Silk Roads city and has its own great monuments as well as an impressive array of museums and cultural institutions. It certainly merits more than a passing glance.
For those whose tastes run to pursuits more active than sightseeing, Uzbekistan provides excellent opportunities for mountaineering, hiking and rock-climbing. By contrast, the desert offers a very different experience. The fauna and flora here are delicate, sometimes difficult to detect – a miracle of survival. Above all, the silence of these arid lands, disturbed but rarely by a stray breeze stirring the desiccated saksaul bushes or the slither of a tiny sand creature, is a humbling, unforgettable experience. Nature reserves give easier access to the great variety of wild life that flourished in Uzbekistan. This includes an extraordinary variety of species plants (wild tulips are native to Turkestan), as well as migratory birds, endangered (and now protected) animals, and unique types of fish.
A growing number of international and national travel agencies offer package tours to Uzbekistan to serve different tastes and budgets. Specialised forms of tourism are proliferating, with special itineraries that cater for a wide range of interests including eco-tourism, religious tourism (not only linked to Islamic sites, but to Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and various forms of Christianity), tourism focusing on gastronomy and wine tasting, therapeutic treatments ‒ and even cosmetic dentistry.
A notable growth area is ‘Silk Roads’ tourism. In 1995 the Uzbek government initiated the ‘Great Silk Road’ tourism programme as part of a strategic plan to develop the country’s tourist infrastructure, prioritising the historic cities ‘Silk Road cities’ of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Tashkent. There are also many ‘Silk Road’ itineraries that cover more than one country. The World Tourist Organization opened its ‘Silk Roads Office’ in Samarkand in 2004 to coordinate the efforts of international organisations and national tourism offices of countries located on the Silk Roads. In 2010, ‘The Regional Initiative’ (TRI), a non-governmental tri-regional partnership spanning South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, was established to foster responsible tourism across the territory of the ancient Silk Routes. Uzbekistan is a member of these and other organisations that promote responsible tourism.