For the past quarter century, tourism in Armenia has been largely limited to either business travelers or Armenians from the Diaspora, visiting the homeland more out of a sense of duty than as a preferred vacation destination. Much has changed in just the past few years, however, bringing encouraging signs Armenia may be on the verge of a tourism renaissance, emerging from the shadows of international obscurity and embracing its potential to become a popular global travel destination. In 2017, a record high of 1,494,779 tourists visited the country, an 18.7% increase over the year before. Perhaps even more remarkable than the overall number of visitors is just where they are hailing from. While neighboring Russia continues to account for as much as one third of tourists to the country, for the first time in 2017 some of the largest gains came from unexpected non-diasporan sources in Asia and the Middle East, including the Philippines, India, China and the United Arab Emirates.
The surge in tourism is the result of a combined influence of globalization and technology that has rendered the remote country more accessible, a concerted effort on the part of the government, NGOs, private-sector and individual entrepreneurs to restore and develop the nation’s tourism infrastructure, and an aggressive marketing campaign on the part of the recently-established State Tourism Committee to promote Armenia as a vacation destination. Traveling to the historically closed country has never been easier, with Armenia’s ‘open sky’ immigration policy, internal passports for Russian citizens, visa facilitation agreements for the citizens of Iran, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Japan and free Schengen agreement short stay visas for the citizens of more than 50 European and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. There are now 34 direct flights to Armenia from cities in Europe, the Middle East, Gulf States and Russia, bringing in 1.5 million people through Armenia’s two major airports in 2017. Over the past year tourism officials furthermore launched a new marketing campaign with a dynamic new website (Armenia.travel), an active social media presence, and attended several travel expos inviting more than 100 international journalists and bloggers from 15 countries to visit. Judging by the the real estate Armenia occupied in the pages of international travel magazines and newspapers, the strategy has more than paid off. Armenia was the focus of more than one hundred articles in the past year, and was featured prominently in a dozen movies and TV episodes, including renowned chef and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain’s popular television show CNN Parts Unknown and an in-depth photo tour in National Geographic Russia. Trip Advisor furthermore ranked the nation second after Egypt as the most preferred destination among Silk Road countries, while the U.S. State Department listed Armenia as one of the safest countries for leisure and travel.
“We want to create a demand for Armenia,” says Zarmine Zeitountsian, Chairperson of the State Tourism Committee. “Our goal is to raise awareness and we are confident we can double the number of tourists to 3 million annually in the next five years. But right now the percentage of people around the world who are familiar with Armenia is very low.” According to Zeitountsian, even among Armenians throughout the diaspora, there is a lack of information and outdated impressions that there is little to do in Armenia other than visit a handful of historical landmarks and churches. “A lot of Armenians don’t see Armenia as a vacation destination,” she says. “Rather they come to visit friends and family or see it as a duty that they have to come visit the homeland for certain Armenian causes. We are working very hard to change that mindset.”
Armenia in fact has a wealth of dynamic activities and authentic experiences to offer visitors. Home to some of Europe’s most unspoiled natural habitats, the country is a paradise for eco and adventure tourism, with 33 national parks, world-class hiking trails, mountain climbing treks, bike paths and more bird species per square kilometer than anywhere else on the continent. With its rich and diverse cultural heritage, Armenia boasts more than 700 potential tourist attractions, including three UNESCO World Heritage sites, medieval monasteries, monuments, contemporary art galleries and museums. It is also increasingly developing a reputation as an affordable destination for religious, medical, wine and gastro tourism. National Geographic recently included Yerevan on its list of ‘six unexpected cities for food lovers.’
As it begins to reap the rewards of development and outreach, Armenia is responding well to the increase in tourism. Its hospitality sector has witnessed a boom since 2013, with the construction of 31 hotels including the Hyatt Place, Radisson Blu, and Doubletree by Hilton, with 50 more hotels scheduled to be built over the next few years. Lusine Safaryan of the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel partly attributes the arrival of high-end hotels in Armenia to an outstanding culture of hospitality in the nation. “In 2015, when the hotel opened, it was called the Sign Hotel. But as Armenia developed a certain quality of customer service we were soon able to apply to Hilton to bring this international brand to Armenia. As one of the biggest hotel chains in the world with properties in over 100 countries and more than 50 million loyal members all over the world, opening in Yerevan means being available to those 50 million people, providing the same high level of service in all Hilton chain hotels.”
The quality of services and choice of activities geared toward tourists and travelers have improved considerably not only in the capital of Yerevan but throughout the country. Visitors can choose from a diverse range of accommodations including luxury bed and breakfasts, Airbnb apartments and budget hostels. Renewed investment in recreational, spiritual and cultural attractions in rural Armenia is gradually attracting more tourists, who now choose to spend only a day in the capital in favor of exploring Armenia’s hidden gems in the mountainous countryside. In the picturesque southern region of Syunik for instance, a large-scale project to restore and preserve the thousand year-old Tatev monastic complex, complete with the world’s longest cable car, is a successful example of how public-private partnerships are revitalizing Armenia’s infrastructure and tourism industry based on local community needs.
The project is part of a more focused government policy toward tourism development, working with the private sector and international organizations to create growth along strategic corridors of investment. This ‘big picture’ approach includes investing in new infrastructure, restoring cultural landmarks, revitalizing urban areas, and building skills in local communities to diversify and expand tourism channels connecting multiple sites of interest, as opposed to looking at individual projects in isolation. A key example is the World Bank-led “Local Economy and Infrastructure Development” project, which involves a 55 million USD investment in several scenic, architectural, and natural attractions across four regions of Kotayk, Ararat, Vayots Dzor and Syunik. Two World Heritage sites in the Northern corridor, Haghpat and Sanahin, will also be restored and developed to attract tourism and boost the local economy.
The tourism sector is also benefiting from a series of recent legislative policies including membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and the pursuit of closer ties with neighboring Georgia, Iran and Russia, which has traditionally been the country’s largest source of tourism dollars. Attempting to account for the increasing appeal of Armenia to the outside world is a question with as many answers as tourists. While Armenians from the diaspora have always come to reconnect with their roots or rekindle relationships with old friends and family, the country’s emphasis on raising its international profile and developing its tourism industry is attracting a more diverse array of visitors from new, dynamic growth markets in Germany, the United Arab Emirates, India and the Philippines. Travelers from the predominantly Christian country are attracted to Armenia’s religious heritage and status as the first nation to adopt Christianity. Religion-specific tourism sees some 330 million people travel worldwide each year, and is growing into an important niche market in Armenia, with exclusive tours and packages catering to exploring the nation’s ancient spiritual roots. From the Middle East, a growing number of travelers are flocking to Armenia for its affordable yet high-quality medical services, including dentistry, reconstructive surgery and infertility treatment. The greatest market for tourism growth in Armenia, however is adventure and eco tourism, a 260 billion dollar industry worldwide. According to the State Tourism Committee, Armenia is attracting more and more tourists from Austria, Germany and the Scandinavian countries looking for an authentic experience. “These are countries where the traveling trends are very much in line with what Armenia can offer,” says Zeitountsian, “and cultural, adventure and eco tourism activities are really at the core of our tourism strategy right now.” Among younger travelers—non-Armenian and Armenian alike—Zeitountsian adds that they have little or no idea what to expect when they come to Armenia. “It’s an undiscovered land for an American tourist,” confirms Nava Rastegar, an Iranian American visiting Armenia for the very first time. Impressed by the extent of the Armenian hospitality she encountered at every turn, she adds that “you can learn so much just by talking to people. I, for one, came to view the Caucasus through a very different, more complex lens.”
One of the things that inspires me is the inclusive and egalitarian philosophy at the heart of the movement…the guiding principle is that anyone can get involved.
Boosting the Economy
While exact figures on the tourism industry’s contribution to Armenia’s GDP have yet to be published for 2017, officials estimate the total contribution of travel and tourism exceeded $1.8 billion USD, or more than 16.4% of GDP last year. The travel and tourism industry directly supports nearly 50,000 jobs in Armenia, or more than 3% of total employment. Revenue generated through tourism is a vital source of income in many rural towns and remote villages struggling with dwindling populations. While Armenia’s burgeoning tourism industry has a long way to go before it is considered competitive internationally, the country is already outperforming many larger, wealthier nations. Although the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 ranked Armenia 84th out of 136 nations, on several key indicators the country stood out among the competition, including ranking 34th for safety and security and 39th for the quality of its business environment.
2018 and Beyond
The year ahead is full of promise and potential, with high expectations to surpass 2017 in the number of foreign visitors. The government is already developing a special calendar of activities to mark the First Republic of Armenia’s 100th and Yerevan’s 2800th anniversaries, which will attract greater numbers of visitors from the diaspora. For the first time, Armenia will host the Francophonie Summit in the fall, expected to attract as many as 5000 participants including more than 80 heads of states and governments. The highly-anticipated summit will be accompanied by galas, exhibitions, and cultural exchange events all showcasing Armenian culture and cuisine, emphasizing its attractiveness as a vacation destination. Finally, the year will come to an end with a very special ceremony in the nation’s second-largest city, Gyumri, to commemorate 30 years since the tragic earthquake that devastated the city on December 7, 1998. In true Armenian spirit, municipal officials say the day will not be a lament, but a celebration of the the resilience of the Armenian people, heralding a new page for the cultural capital. As the world awakens to its many wonders, Armenia is welcoming the world with open arms, embracing the challenge ahead.
With files from Naré Navasardyan
Banner photo by Arthur Lumen Gevorgyan