Social Media Report: The Silk Road

Social Media Report: The Silk Road

The connected Silk Road

It would be easy to think that the Silk Road – the traditional trade route linking Europe and Asia that brings to mind images of searing central Asian desert cities – and social media are polar opposites. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the countries of the Silk Road count among their number the state with the highest proportion of Twitter users (Saudi Arabia at 33% of the online population), two of the top ten countries for the total number of Facebook users (Indonesia and Turkey) along with one of the country’s with the highest penetration of Facebook relative to its online population (Israel, 50%).

Of course, Facebook and Twitter are not the only story in social. The two networks were banned in China in 2009, although access was recently granted to a small section of the population living and working in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone and many users are on the two through the use of anonymising proxy services. Yet social media is enormous in China through its own networks: Sina Weibo has around 600 million registered users of which 60.2 million are active daily users while Tencent’s Qzone has a similar number. RenRen, meanwhile, has around 200 million registered users.

Mobile penetration is also high in the countries of the Silk Road with two of the top three countries for smartphone ownership (South Korea and Saudi Arabia) among the nation’s on this ancient trading route.

At the same time, there are  handful of Silk Road countries where the internet, mobile and social are yet to make any serious impact.

Overall, the countries of the Silk Road represent 40% of the world’s population and, generally speaking, they are connected to the internet, own mobiles and are socially savvy.  In a separate article in this report on the Silk Road, we look at how these countries are using social media to promote themselves to the world’s tourists.

Table: Silk Road countries: online, mobile and social
 Population Mobile penetration (%) Internet users (%) Facebook users (% of population)
Albania  3,162,083 54 54.7 35.4
Armenia  2,969,081 107 39.2 12.2
Azerbaijan   9,297,507 107 54.2 10.1
Bangladesh 154,695,368 64 6.3 2.1
Bulgaria 7,304,632 146 55.1 35.8
China 1,350,695,000 81 42.3 0
Croatia  4,267,000 113 63 32.4
North Korea  24,763,188 7 0 0
South Korea  50,004,000 110 84.1 20.5
Egypt  80,721,874 115 44.1 14.5
Georgia  4,511,800 109 45.5 19.9
Greece 11,280,167 117 56 35.7
Indonesia  246,864,191 115 15.4 20.6
Iran 76,424,443 177 26 0
Iraq 32,578,209 79 7.1 8.2
Israel 7,907,900 120 73.4 50
Italy 60,917,978 159 58 37.9
Japan 127,561,489 109 79.1 13.5
Kazakhstan  16,797,459 175 53.3 4
Kyrygyzstan 5,582,100 125 21.7 2
Mongolia  2,796,484 118 16.4 16.2
Pakistan  179,160,111 67 10 4.2
Russia 143,533,000 184 53.3 3.8
San Marino 31,247 113 50.9 25.9
Saudi Arabia 28,287,855 185 54 22.1
Syria  22,399,254 61 24.3 0
Takijistan  8,008,990 92 14.5 0.5
Turkey 73,997,128 91 45.1 39.3
Turkmenistan 5,172,931 76 7.2 0.2
Ukraine 45,593,300 132 33.7 3.7
Uzbekistan 29,776,850 72 36.5 0.5
TOTAL 2,817,062,619
AVERAGE 115.48 39.5 15.2

Sources: World Bank (population, mobile penetration, internet users), Internet World Stats (Facebook users)

[tabs][tab title =”Interview with the UNWTO”]

In recent years, there has been considerable work to unite those countries along The Silk Road to work together on a joint tourism initiative. It’s not been easy – but the programme, created and driven by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), has made huge strides along the way. Silk Road Programme Manager Alla Peressolova tells WTM more.

Thanks for your time, Alla. Tell me, why is this project so important for UNWTO?

The UNWTO promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide. The UNWTO is contributing, through a wide array of meetings, initiatives and projects, to the reduction of poverty and the promotion of sustainable development.

The Silk Road Programme is particularly important because it unites 31 Member States and tourism stakeholders from diverse fields within a collaborative platform fitted to the globalized age we live in. The Programme provides a platform for destinations, united by their common Silk Road heritage, to collaborate on marketing and promotion, capacity building and product development, cross border initiatives and travel facilitation.

As an example of our work, please let me mention the UNESCO/UNWTO Silk Roads Heritage Corridors Project, a groundbreaking initiative aimed at developing and supporting a strategy for visitor management, site presentation and promotion along two specific Silk Road Heritage Corridors: one crossing Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China, the other crossing Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In anticipation of a possible nomination to World Heritage status, this project aims at maximize tourism development – while safeguarding the regions’ unique cultural heritage. A Roadmap for Development, a guideline document outlining our strategy, is available online and details the work we will be conducting throughout 2014.

As we have seen from similar initiatives involving interrelated cultural routes, such as the Venetian routes of the Silk Road, the Spice Route and the Maritime Silk Road, these allow destinations to join efforts more efficiently and cost-effectively by cooperating under a common brand and framework.

Admirable and exciting. What was achieved in 2013 – and what are your priorities for 2014?

In terms of brand awareness, the UNWTO Silk Road Programme was successful in raising its profile at international fairs and events, most notably at ITB Berlin and WTM London. Moreover, the two Globe Trekker episodes on the Silk Road that UNWTO helped to develop were broadcasted in over 40 countries – a great publicity achievement that has helped to spread the word on the richness and diversity of these famous routes.

As to capacity building and destination management initiatives, we were successful in building new alliances with public and private stakeholders and were able to enhance cooperation between our Members.

In cooperation with the Altai region of Russia and the École hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL), one of the world’s leading hospitality management schools, UNWTO implemented The Altai Krai Hospitality Management Strategy. Here, a group of graduate students from EHL teamed up with local tourism authorities, students and private sector stakeholders to develop a needs-assessment focused on three key areas: Human Resource Development, Sustainable Development and Marketing & Promotion. The results from the needs-assessment were used to conduct workshop sessions outlining hospitality recommendations for local tourism authorities and private sector stakeholders.

Additionally, a bloggers trip to Armenia was organized for the winners of the UNWTO/ WTM Silk Road Bloggers Ch@llenge, an international competition that captured the essence of the Silk Road through individual contributions made by participating bloggers.

Kindly sponsored by the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia, this trip, a week-long blogging and discovery trip of Armenia, was a very good example of how the surge of blogging and other forms of User-generated content is changing the way we think about and enjoy tourism.

As to meetings, the 6th UNWTO International Meeting on Silk Road Tourism was held in China, which attracted over 300 delegates from 25 countries. The theme was Building the New Silk Road for Tourism and covered a variety of topics – such as creating a better business environment, the value of travel, the importance of safeguarding heritage and the role of Silk Road cities.

Finally, in 2013, two new Member States joined the programme, San Marino and Indonesia. Including the recent incorporations of Albania, Bangladesh, Bulgaria and Croatia, this raised the total number of involved countries to 31. We are very pleased with this growing level of engagement, which surely demonstrates that destinations are interested in collaborating in this type of initiative.

Looking ahead to 2014, we will:

  • Continue to raise the profile of the Silk Road brand. We look forward to the 20th Anniversary of the Silk Road Declaration, held in Samarkand in 1994 and attended by 19 countries, that marked the beginning of a Silk Road tourism concept.
  • Advance in our destination management projects in collaboration with our Member States, public and private tourism stakeholders and partner UN Agencies.
  • Continue to address travel facilitation issues and collaborate with relevant stakeholders (airlines, tour-operators, etc.) in developing strategies to ease travel along the historic routes.

Ah, yes. Efforts to ease border access and visas…

In the last few years, UNWTO, together with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), has produced extensive research to demonstrate the value of visa facilitation in terms of economic growth and job creation. One of our reports, in October, showed that visa facilitation could create up to 2.6 million new jobs in the Asia-Pacific economies by 2016. Facilitating visas for this region alone could generate 57 million more tourists with an additional US$89 bn in international tourism.

Inefficient visa and border crossing procedures continue to hinder travel, which is why this issue is one of the three key focus areas of the UNWTO Silk Road Action Plan. Along the Silk Road, we’ve seen some very positive examples with e-visa programmes and free visa regimes being introduced in a number of countries. Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were all in the top 30 countries making the most visa improvements in 2010/2012.

We will continue to push for travel facilitation across the Silk Road and this will be the main issue we address at our upcoming UNWTO Silk Road Ministers’ Meeting to take place at ITB Berlin in March. At the meeting, we look forward to sharing new research on visa facilitation along the Silk Road that will ultimately encourage governments to collaborate and overcome the challenges.

Interesting… Thanks Alla. Finally, what type of tourist/traveller do you think The Silk Road programme appeals to?

If you enjoy great journeys, have an interest in history and culture, and don’t mind bumpy travels… then you will definitely enjoy tourism along the Silk Road. It can speak to a wide audience and offer various products tailored to the needs of each group, from city tourism (from Venice and Istanbul to Seoul and Osaka passing through Almaty, Samarkand and Beijing), cultural visitation (food, heritage sites, etc.), or a more adventure and eco-tourism approach.

The UNWTO Silk Road Programme, building on the modernization of infrastructure and transportation possibilities, plus the increase in cooperation regarding travel facilitation issues, aims to enhance the Silk Road travel experience.

Ultimately, we aim to establish seamless, distinctive travel offering visitors natural landscapes, heritage sites and culture, architecture of immense value and highly diverse food – with the company of people who embody the legacy of millenary civilizations.

More information: [/tab]

[tab title =”Jonathan Powell”]

Jonathan Powell of travel and lifestyle blog Flaneur visited Armenia on the Silk Road last year. Here we talk to him about his thoughts on the country and the Silk Road in general.

What is The Flaneur?

The Flaneur is a culture website that is based in England but has contributors around the world. Named after the 19th century gentlemen who wandered the streets of Paris observing everything that took place, we love travel and like reflecting it in writing, images and now video.

What were your first impressions of Armenia?

We arrived in Armenia via Moscow in the evening and were met by a driver who spoke the same amount of English as I spoke Armenian. This could have been tricky, but sign language is a great thing and he was soon driving us through the neon-emblazoned Yerevan streets to an urban basement club. There he joined us for a typical Armenian meal served by a friendly waitress who explained what the specialities were in English. Within an hour of landing in Armenia we had tried new foods, met some friendly people and were settling down to a nice meal in a cool club.

Did you find easy access to the internet while you were there?

Yes, our hotel had a good wifi connection. There is the usual problem when abroad that using data on mobile phones is expensive for foreigners. This is the same everywhere and as long as there are wifi connections available somewhere each day then it should not be a problem.

What were the highlights of your trip to Armenia?

I’m an Italophile so I was pleased to see the Roman temple at Garni. Tasting local foods and cheeses was a highlight as was getting to know the people that we met. The Tatev Cable Car was a very impressive engineering feat. A good moment was discovering the Armenian for thank you was in fact Merci and not the much harder to remember Shenorhagal em!.

What content did you create for your blog from the trip and which has been popular?

I wrote articles illustrated with photographs. I also tweeted and Facebooked images and links.

Since the trip The Flaneur has started building up a following on Vine and Instagram and we intend to post images from the trip on these as well.

Did you see much evidence of the use of social media in the country while you were there?

I met some local bloggers that were using Facebook to arrange meetings and protests, but there wasn’t the same ubiquity of Twitter names and hashtags as here.

Would you encourage other travel bloggers to go to Armenia and the Silk Road?

Definitely. Armenia is an exciting place to visit, with stunning weather and lots of unusual sights that make great articles. It is still an uncommon destination and has a sense of adventure. There is plenty to write about.

What sort of blog trip would you like to be invited on from Armenia or the other countries of the Silk Road?

The Silk Route crosses several countries so I would like to follow it from one side of a country to another. Having spoken to local bloggers I would like to visit Nagorno-Karabakh.  Visiting some of the key cities, museums or roads of the route would be very interesting.

I think that countries could get more coverage by inviting more bloggers for a shorter period than inviting only a few for longer.

How do you think Armenia and the other countries of the Silk Road should promote themselves using social media and travel blogs?

Regarding social media I think that the Silk Route should use a simple hashtag (#SilkRoute seems a good idea, or something more exciting like #SilkRouteAdventure) and encourage travellers to use it – maybe by mentioning it in the places where free wifi is offered.

They should also make sure that they have a presence on all the major social networks and post images of the amazing sights that are to be seen along the Silk Route. Link these to an attractive website that helps people to book trips easily. Make sure the accounts remain active – an account that hasn’t been updated for weeks is off-putting.

I imagine the difficulties of arranging trips puts some people off. If the website offered easy to purchase holidays that took away any hassles and made sure that all travel and hotels were booked in one go.[/tab][/tabs]

Blogging the Silk Road – it’s so social

Armenia welcomed its first international blogger last year, another small step along the way in using social media to help highlight the Silk Road programme.

The visit, by British-based Jonathan Powell of The Flaneur, was as a result of a Silk Road writing competition run at WTM – with a prize trip offered by The National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia, the country’s official tourist board.

“It was the first time we had hosted a blogger – and it was eye-opening,” says Syuzanna Azoyan of the NCFA. “We knew blogs are forever but we hadn’t realised they seem to be everywhere.”

Jonathan wrote an impressive 14 blog posts on his trip, with stories ranging from the Selim Caravanserai (one of two remaining from the Silk Road trading era), to the Revolver Bar in a hotel (with guns), stringy cheese and the impressive Geghard Monastery. You can also read Jonathan’s thoughts on the Silk Road here.

The NCFA also arranged for him to meet Armenian bloggers, an inspired touch which greatly broadened his knowledge and understanding of the country, said Jonathan.

Now the NCFA has included bloggers in its 2014 campaigns. And it is not alone – while two-thirds of Silk Road countries had also not invited bloggers by 2013, an impressive 70% say they plan to.

Inviting bloggers to write for their audiences is one established method in the west. Another, newer, trend is to write good, original ‘native’ content for distribution – but not to spin it with PR.

One of the Silk Road’s newest country members, Bangladesh, has plumped for inviting students to write the Tourism Board’s blog – an interesting development. It will be interesting to see the freedom offered.

A separate ‘Silk Road in Bangladesh’ blog is also being considered. Akhtanuz Zaman Khan Kabir, the Board’s chief executive, says: “We think of the Silk Road as a brand – and we really want to strengthen its role.”

In a Silk Road panel discussion at WTM 2013, the audience heard the results of research of 34,000 travellers by The World Youth, Student and Education Travel Confederation (WYSE).

Director general David Chapman said that social media is in the Top 10 of pre-trip information sources (No 1 remains family/friends – but travellers still use social to validate those opinions).

Information sources on the road sees social media rise to 7th – but daily communication on the road see its shoot to the top of the list, with text and email joint second.

“They are actively mini-blogging – such as ‘this is the beer I just drank,’” said Chapman. “One of the most important things I can say is to emphaisise the importance of wifi. Hostels recognise it as a free channel for publicity.”

The discussion on Silk Road and its growing use of social was neatly wrapped up by Giorgi Sigua, head of The Georgian National Tourism Association.

“We already recognise the role of social media – and that social marketing is much more effective than TV or outdoor advertising. We spend 60% of marketing budget on social rather than TV.”

The Social Silk Road

As part of World Travel Market’s collaboration with the UNWTO’s Silk Road campaign, Travel Perspective carried out a survey among tourism organisations and travel companies that operate in the 33 member countries of the programme. The survey looked at the organisations’ use of social media in promoting cross-border tourism along the Silk Road. Around two thirds of those who responded were national tourism boards while the remainder were private travel companies.

Using social media to promote individual countries

There is a wide range of promotional activity on social media channels among the member countries – some do not use these marketing channels actively at all, while others, such as Greece, have finely developed presences on social networks.

Despite this, there was an awareness of the importance of social media as shown below.



The chart above shows that the member states and travel companies working in those countries feel that social media will become considerably more important in the future, with almost two thirds of respondents saying they will use these networks much more than they do at present.

Travel bloggers

At World Travel Market’s Social Silk Road session in November 2013, visitors heard from travel blogger Jonathan Powell of The Flaneur, who had visited Armenia and blogged about his experiences. You can read about his thoughts on his blog trip.

But what about other countries and travel bloggers? As the chart below shows, a healthy number are working with bloggers but the majority still do not. However, there does seem to be an appetite for working more closely with bloggers in the future.

Does your destination work with travel bloggers?
How often do you plan to work with travel bloggers in the future?
Using social media to promote individual countries

As well as asking member states and organisations about their use of social media in promoting individual countries, we asked whether they actively promoted the Silk Road. A good proportion do promote the famous trade route using social but the majority still do not.

Do you run Silk Road campaigns on you social media channel?

We also asked respondents about the networks which they felt were most important for social media marketing. As you might expect, Facebook – with its more than 1.2 billion users – was viewed by all those who responded as the most important network in which to have a presence.



  1. Paul says:

    Everyone loves what you guys are usually up too.
    This type of clever work and reporting! Keep up the good works guys I’ve included you guys to blogroll.

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