Uzbekistan announced Tuesday plans to roll back its highly restrictive tourism regime by cancelling visa requirements for 15 countries in a sign that one of the world’s most reclusive states may be opening up a crack.
An executive order that followed the victory of interim leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev in an uncompetitive presidential vote Sunday said citizens of the 15 countries would not need visas to enter the country after April 2017.
The presidential order published by Mirziyoyev’s press service also clarified that citizens from 12 other countries — including the United States and France — can enter the country visa-free if they are 55 years old or older.
The policy change was made “in order to create a favourable economic and institutional conditions for intensive development of tourism as a strategic sector of the economy,” according to the order.
Citizens of the following countries will be allowed to visit Uzbekistan visa-free for a period of 30 days regardless of age: Australia, Austria, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Korea, Singapore, Finland, Switzerland and Japan.
Citizens aged 55 or over of these countries will be able to visit the country for tourism purposes for a period of 30 days: Belgium, Indonesia, China (as part of tourist groups), Malaysia, USA, France, Vietnam, Israel, Poland, Hungary, Portugal and the Czech Republic.
The age restriction for the second group of countries was not explained in the order.
Uzbekistan is home to Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand, three cities considered jewels along the Old Silk Road trade routes that used to connect Europe and Asia.
Thousands of tourists visit the cities every year but the existence of a visa regime for all but a handful of countries and an onerous registration process has stymied the growth of tourism.
The changes may not lead to a relaxation of entry procedures for foreign journalists.
Last month, security services detained and deported German journalist Edda Schlager after working on a tourist visa.
Uzbekistan remains one of the few ex-communist countries to maintain for its own citizens a system involving an exit visa, which is an official permit for people wishing to leave the country.
Mirziyoyev, 59, served as Karimov’s prime minister for 13 years before his landslide election win with nearly 89 percent of the vote against three pro-regime opponents on Sunday.
Uzbekistan is a commodity-rich republic with a population of around 32 million and shares borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.