Home to show-stopping architecture, ancient cities and a fascinating Silk Road past, Uzbekistan has long appealed to a small UK niche of history lovers and culture vultures. Yet its popularity is on the up – and the destination has Joanna Lumley to thank for it.
The actress visited the country for ITV series Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure, which aired last September. It’s probably no coincidence that last year’s visitor numbers were up 28% year-on-year compared with 2017.
The government’s abolition of its visa regime for visitors from the UK and 44 other countries in February has also had a big part to play. The visa-free policy, which allows UK travellers to stay in the country for 30 days from the date of entry, is reflective of a change in direction for the former Soviet country.
“Large-scale reforms across the country mean we are becoming more open to foreign tourists, including backpackers,” explained Aliyorbek Tilavov, counsellor of the Embassy of Uzbekistan in London at a recent event.
While the Unesco World Heritage cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are the main draws for many, the embassy is keen to highlight the destination’s other treasures to help avoid overtourism.
Top experiences include uncovering the archaeological ruins around Termez in the south, hiking in Ugam-Chatcal national park and learning about avant garde art in the north-west city of Nukus.
Uzbekistan’s Soviet past and visa policies mean that until now, it has been fairly closed off to European and American travellers, helping the destination maintain a “unique, special” atmosphere, according to Megan Eaves, guidebook writer and Uzbekistan expert.
“The people are incredibly friendly and it’s very easy to travel around as a woman. Standing in Registan Square at sunset is something I’ll never forget.”
As I enjoyed a traditional dinner of palov, a rice-based dish cooked with beef and vegetables, I heard from another journalist who has visited. “The beauty of Uzbekistan is there still aren’t many tourists.” Recommend clients go now, before that starts to change.
When to visit: The embassy suggests visiting Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva from November to March, when sites are quieter.
Getting there: Uzbekistan Airways flies from Heathrow to Tashkent on Tuesdays and Fridays. Flight time is seven hours.
Getting around: The country’s high-speed rail system links the Silk Road cities and many others.