Residents of South Armenia hope for tourism renaissance in the aftermath of second Karabakh war
After the second Karabakh war, tourist destinations in Armenia began to change. In the past, the Syunik region was the most popular destination but today the clients of travel agencies tend to avoid it. After the war, many settlements in the south of Armenia ended up bordering Azerbaijan, and a security problem became more apparent. Nevertheless, local residents continue to hope for the development of tourism in Syunik.
They say their settlements are in intensive care and believe that “healing is possible”. People come up with and launch various development programs – in order to continue living in their homes.
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During the pre-war period of 2019, about 2 million tourists visited Armenia.
According to the data for the first quarter of 2021, 86,524 tourists visited Armenia, as opposed to 307,000 in the same period of the previous year. People come to Armenia mainly from Russia, Iran, the USA, and Georgia.
Some improvement has been observed since July, but Syunik, popular in the past, has surrendered its positions. Instead, tourism in the northern regions of Armenia has intensified, and tourists are now heading to Shirak, Lori and Tavush.
Tourism in Syunik: a story from Tatev
Norayr Grigoryan has been in the hotel business for 10 years, he owns a B&B called “Tatev” in the village of Tatev. But the business has been slow-going for a long time – there are no tourists. Before the pandemic and the Karabakh war, many guests came here – from Europe, the USA, China, Japan.
“Last year, when the coronavirus receded a little, some activity began, but then the war started and paralyzed everything. I invested a lot in my business, but I dropped everything and went to war with a detachment of my villagers. Eight months after the war, some activity began again – groups would come for an overnight stay. When people are told that the situation at the border is normalizing, they begin to come”, says Norayr Grigoryan.
Since 2009, the Tatev monastery complex and a number of surrounding villages have been declared by the Armenian government a tourist center “Tatev”. The longest reversible cable car in the world – “Wings of Tatev” was built here.
“Residents of the villages could really feel the result of these steps. In Tatev alone, people have opened 20 guest houses. Most of the villagers before that were engaged in cattle breeding, gardening, but enthusiastically took up business and converted their houses into hotels.
We made great money during the season. If you remember how much money tourists left to the villagers per day, per month, then today’s earnings seem even more meager. Many took up gardening and farming again. But I am an optimist”, says Norayr Grigoryan.
He believes that the recommendations of the embassies, warning citizens of their countries to refrain from traveling to the southern borders of Armenia, significantly affect the number of tourists who then decide to come to these regions.
“Europeans and Americans are counting ten steps forward wherever they go. But those who come and see with their own eyes that it is safe here come again. Now more tourists come to us from Russia”, he says.
Tatev’s head of administration Karlen Arshakyan says that before the pandemic, 40-50% of local residents lived off tourism, and for this they made certain investments. Recently, the coronavirus retreated, but a security problem arose since, after the war, the Syunik region became a border region.
“Only the villages of Tatev, Tandzatap, and Svarants are not bordering Azerbaijan, the rest all ended up on the border. We want to increase the flow of tourists, we are developing new programs to make the village more comfortable so that new recreation and entertainment areas appear here.
There is progress, but the progress is very slow, for a month already a shift has been felt. There are very few Europeans – about five percent, mostly come from Russia. I’m sure things will work out. There is no such place in the world like Syunik”, the head of Tatev says.
Ara Nahapetyan, a geologist by profession, says that tourism also developed in Svaranets, but the coronavirus pandemic and the war here also disrupted the plans of local residents.
“The situation is difficult because we have big losses. The people in Syunik felt the territorial losses directly, of course, after the residents of Karabakh. Everyone understands that the Azerbaijani positions are not far away, and after the war, people are afraid to come here. This is a natural reaction. When at least a few tourists come, we are immediately inspired. We need to solve the security problem so that they come”, explains Ara Nahapetyan.
His small farm cooperates with guest houses that host tourists, and now he also has a difficult time:
“But when I remember what we had to go through, and after that tourists still come to Syunik, then everything is fine. Svarants is now on artificial respiration, in intensive care, but I believe that healing is possible. We are thinking of using programs to develop the village so that our children continue to live here”.
The Svarants, the school, which only has 18 students, has had one graduate and one first-grader this year. Ani Nahapetyan, one of the teaching staff at the school, says that it is the youth who have now taken upon themselves the care of the village:
“We are few, but we are trying, looking for ways to develop the village. We do not even think about leaving these places, on the contrary, we are thinking about how to return those who have already left. Despite all the problems, our village is paradise”.
New models of tourism development
Tourism experts are sure that now Armenia needs to be presented to tourists in a different way. The previous approaches and formats after the pandemic and the war are irrelevant; new models of the country’s presentation must be sought.
The former head of the Tourism Committee, Zarmine Zeytuntsyan, is sure that in order to overcome the crisis, it is necessary to change the country’s image, an aggressive marketing policy and capitalization of the historical and cultural potential are needed:
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Armenia is not the first country to go through a war. You can learn from the experience of other countries that have faced a similar situation and have managed to put tourism on a new track. These countries had a similar strategy – an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at changing the established perception of them in the world.
We constantly say that Armenia is the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion. However, only we know about it. It is necessary to use the existing historical and cultural potential ”.
The head of the Armenian Tourism Federation Mekhak Apresyan believes that the tourist interest in Armenia is gradually growing but there is still much to be done to revive the sphere:
“In world markets, it is necessary to provide an information campaign, conduct an active marketing policy, launch institutional reforms in order to get out of the list of dangerous countries”