By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT -- One of Uzbekistan's main tourist destinations is working to double its number of visitors by 2021.
Samarkand, which was founded in the 7th century BCE and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, in coming years could have a new 24-hour tourist zone in the historic core, as well as more hotels and better restaurants.
A recently approved Uzbekistani government plan to build up Samarkand tourism infrastructure through 2019 is expected to cost at least "39.3 billion UZS [$9.8 million]", Shokhrukh Kurbanov, a source within Samarkand city hall, told Caravanserai.
The government expects to spend more than that preliminary figure in carrying out the associated projects, he said, adding that the funding stream will "include government funds, bank loans, and foreign investments".
A similar effort to promote Bukhara as a destination is under way.
Uzbekistan, with an array of ancient cities rich in Muslim history and architecture, has considerable potential for tourism that goes unused, say industry watchers.
Considering its "unique ... cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Shakhrisabz and Khiva, Uzbekistan doesn't have a lot of tourists", Yekaterina Kan, an employee of the Tashkent travel agency Miurid Travel, told Caravanserai.
"The country is relatively closed off, visas are hard to obtain, plane tickets are expensive," she added. "But our country's potential is vast."
Highlights for any visitor include Samarkand.
"The aesthetic of the Sillk Road continues to attract tourists from all over the world who are prepared to do a lot," said Kan. "We don't have the mass tourism ... you see in European cities."
One Frenchman acknowledged the challenge of visiting Uzbekistan.
"I really liked Uzbekistan," Frédéric Lalli, who visited in June, told Caravanserai. "But coming here wasn't easy. You have to buy a [guided] tour ... or else you can't get a visa. You can't stay wherever you want; you have to register at hotels."
Trying to make Samarkand more enticing, the Uzbekistani government is investing in infrastructure.
In 2015, 142,000 tourists came to Samarkand Province, almost half of them foreigners, according to the government. Statistics for 2016 are not available yet.
The government hopes to double that number by 2021. On June 30, it adopted a resolution on expediting development of Samarkand city and Samarkand Province's tourist potential in 2017-2019.
The plan calls for building more hotels and other tourism infrastructure.
"We plan entertainment options for tourists and a better system of restaurants," said Kurbanov. "We'll beautify the city and provide Wi-Fi."
Tourism officials envision a new advertising campaign and more rail and air connections to Samarkand, he added.
The resolution's main proposal is to create a tourist zone called Samarkand City in the town's historic core. If implemented, it would mean hotels and 24-hour entertainment and shopping venues in the zone.
"We expect that both Uzbekistani businesses and foreign investors will show interest in the zone," Kurbanov said. "Businesses who choose to work in Samarkand City will have the majority of their taxes exempted, and they'll be exempt from all import duties on equipment and materials."
"This zone is a good opportunity for small-business owners in Samarkand," Samarkand businessman Dilmurod Abdurokhmonov told Caravanserai. "Thanks to tax breaks, they'll be able to start working and creating jobs without difficulty."
Other plans call for tourism-promoting projects on the outskirts of town, such as a future 9.6ha eco-tourism zone in Mironkul Mahalla. A businessman is planning to spend 12 billion UZS ($3 million) to build it.