Postcard from Armenia
by OLIVIA KATRANDJIAN in Yerevan
16 May 2010 18:51
Photo by Khashayar Zand
Armenia: The New Iranian Tourist Destination
Armenia is not your typical tourist destination. But in 2009, 44,297 Iranian tourists visited Armenia, according to the National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia. That number has increased from 23,892 in 2005 and 29,597 in 2008 -- a tremendous surge.
"Armenia is a new discovery for Iranians," said a representative of the Armenian community in Tehran, who chose not to be named. While Dubai has become more expensive, Yerevan has developed adequate and affordable accommodations. "We have more rooms for people to stay in, more restaurants for people to eat in," said Edna Baghoumian, a Persian Armenian living in Yerevan. "Tour companies have developed packages that are really affordable."
For Iranians, Armenia is cheaper than other regional destinations and much more accessible. In a world where Iranians feel unwelcome in most countries, they can enter Armenia without applying for a visa in advance by hopping on a bus to cross a shared border. In what is one of the region's few Christian nations, Iranians can drink alcohol and dress and dance freely. Iranian women can throw off their headscarves while men enjoy the view of Armenian ladies in high heels and tight skirts.
While May to October is Armenia's best tourist season, March is the month that sees the largest influx of Iranians. This year, 27,600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in Armenia's capital of Yerevan. But Nowruz is not the only time Iranians vacation in Yerevan. "Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Gogosian, a Iranian-Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan. "The anniversary of Khomeni's death is coming up, so for three or four days it's going to be like Nowruz here. It's not about the specific holiday, it's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country and party." But partying isn't the sole motivating factor -- many Iranian families come to visit their children, who are enrolled in Yerevan's many universities.
Out of Armenia's four bordering neighbors, Iran is arguably its most reliable. Iran supplies Armenia with energy and electricity, and the two countries are working together on other projects that will further Armenia's economic development. Despite this friendly relationship and the fact that Iranians inject much needed cash into Armenia's economy, the Iranian presence is not wholly welcomed in Yerevan. Because of the small size of Armenia's capital and its essentially mono-ethnic community, the Iranian presence is unavoidable. During Nowruz, it was easy to spot the drunk Iranians on the streets, some of whom became a public nuisance. But if they were drunk, it was because they were buying Armenian cognac and drinking at Armenian bars, which is good for the Armenian economy.
"The expenses of each person per week during their stay in Armenia is at least 1,500 US dollars," said an Iranian Embassy representative. For the Armenian economy, that is no small sum -- in 2007, the average Armenian spent 12 US dollars a week, according to the Armenian Ministry of Finances.
Given this trend from Armenia's Muslim neighbor, if the Turkish-Armenian border is opened, what is to stop Turks and Kurds who can afford it from coming into Yerevan on the weekends?
"Already we have some Turks and Kurds coming here, but not in a critical mass so they're not as visible," said Vanoohi Googasian. "The Persians come here because of the freedoms and the women, but Turkey doesn't inflict such strict regulations upon its citizens. So if the Turks came, it would have a completely different meaning. But let me tell you, it would serve to assimilate the two peoples."
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