Time for Armenians to put Armenia on the tourist map

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By Jason White

Tigrannes the Great, Gregory the Illuminator, Mesrop Mashtots, Moses of Chorene, Herculius, Andranik, Artem Mikoyan, Tigran Petrosian, Charles Aznavor, are among Armenia’s most famous. Mount Ararat is the symbolic and iconic final resting place of Noah’s Arc. Churches from antiquity including Tatev, Geghard, Garni and Zvarnots. This a country of culinary delight; Lavash, Khash and Dolma. Pomagranit, Apricots and Grapes, all are national produce. World-renowned wine to match the world’s best producers is produced here. In the summer, there are the unknown alluring and peaceful waters of Lake Sevan and its beaches, and in the winter the Tsaghkadzor and Jermuk ski locations provide more than adequate skiing facilities at very reasonable prices. Armenia’s geography and nature can often be mistaken for Switzerland or Scotland and the comparison is there to see especially in places such as Diligen and its Aragots region.

This country first introduced Christianity to the world back in the 3rd century. Armenia is a place of supreme and natural beauty, a small country with a big heart. Small it may be, but the country is home to some of the most beautiful women in the world.

Given its history and undoubted natural beauty it is a surprise therefore that globally there is so much ignorance of Armenia as a tourist location. Because of its history, Armenia enjoys a historical and rich diaspora far and wide and to all corners of the globe: Argentina to Canada, Russia through to Australia. But why then is it that there is such a lack of knowledge of what Armenia has to offer as a tourist destination? The country’s Soviet past is one reason. This is a legacy that many former Soviet countries have had great difficulty throwing off.

Furthermore, very little tourist infrastructure was created during the Soviet Union, and the country has been too poor to invest much in that direction since gaining independence in 1991 and becoming the Republic of Armenia.

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Armenia’s tourism statistics are telling. Armenia’s share in the European tourist market is currently only 0.08%, and it attracts only 0.04% of worldwide tourist arrivals. The country was 89th in the 2015 World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index ranking, compared to Russia’s 45th, although statistics for that rating were gathered before recent events. According to Ruben Minasyan, rector of the Armenian Institute of Tourism, Armenia uses only 30% of its tourism potential. Young people in Russia and western Europe are simply not interested in going to a country that has virtually no recreational tourist destinations.

However, all this is changing. According to the Armenian ministry of economy, 1.2 million tourists visited Armenia in 2014, an 11.3% rise from the previous year. A growth was reported also for domestic tourism that grew by 28.4% from the year before to 859, 000 people.

2015 was indeed a year of great turmoil within the travel industry, given the terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Egypt and recently the military stand off between Turkey and Russia. Northern European countries and Russia in particular have paid a heavy price through terrorist attacks, specifically from the Tunisian beach massacre and the Russian Airbus A321 disaster over the Sinai, with the tragic loss of all 224 on board. This has seen air routes closed and hundreds of thousands of bookings to these countries cancelled.

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Behind the scenes, there is a realignment of potential tourist countries to visit. We are talking about a share, for example, of 10 million Russian holidaymakers that now have to choose alternative destinations. Armenia has a strong historical, friendly and economic relationship with Russia. It is politically and economically linked with the newly formed Eurasian market. It is renowned for its friendliness and openness, with over 300 sunshine days a year. This is a safe and secure location to travel to. According to Gallup’s Law and Order Index, Armenia is 9th place among 141 countries with 82% of adult Armenians feeling quite safe.

The Armenian Tourist Ministry urgently needs to concentrate on increasing marketing and advertising campaigns highlighting Armenia’s potential both in summer and winter holidays. When I mention Armenia as an alternative holiday location here in Russia I have had Muscovites ask me about infrastructure, standard of hotels and security issues. Clearly, as far as Russia is concerned, there is a complete lack of knowledge about Armenia.

It is time that the country stepped up to the table and showcased what a beautiful, enduring, and remarkable place it is. There has never been such a time given the geopolitical situation, for Armenia to act. If she decides not to, Russian tourists will soon be making their way in their millions to Georgia, Azerbaijan to name but a few other historical touristic destinations, which also have vast potential. The collapse of one tourist market only means the creation or reinvention of others. It remains to seen which countries are smart enough and can raise enough cash, quickly, to invest in infrastructure to invite tourists whose expectations and standards have risen considerably over the past 25 years.