Armenia Beckons Tourists with Christianity and Night Clubs

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Every time I return from a trip to Armenia, I find the flight full of Asian and European travelers. I often have wondered what attracts those visitors to Armenia. A few random questions reveal that many people visit Armenia to learn about its Christian history. That, of course, would have been a dignified cause had it been the only reason. There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ visit and his courageous statement about the Armenian Genocide put Armenia on the tourist map.

But going from the sublime to the ridiculous, Kim Kardashian’s visit in 2015 also has created tremendous interest in that tiny country tucked away in the Caucasus Mountains in a different audience.

We may also be loath to admit that Kardashian’s statements about the Armenian Genocide have, perhaps, been as equally effective in generating awareness about this historic wrong as the volumes of serious academic publications on the subject.

As ironic as it may sound, that predicts what triggers the interest of other people.

Another flow of tourists into Armenia comes from Iran. The Muslim tourists from that country have the least interest in Armenia’s Christian heritage; instead, the source of their interest in Armenia is their own closed society which enforces rigorous moral codes, restricting people from enjoying the social freedoms of an open society.

Armenia’s Christian heritage is a recent discovery even for its own people. In today’s world, many countries filter their politics through religion. Even in America, the Bible Belt has been a staunch supporter of President Trump, regardless of his frivolous romps (allegedly) with adult actresses, several divorces and out-of-wedlock dalliances. The Bible does preach understanding and compassion, and Mary Magdalene is more virtuous that many others who were socially superior to her.

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One of the few benefits of the Soviet system was that people were not discriminated against based on their faith. The combustible mixture of religion and politics did not exist. That is why formerly the Muslim populations of the Soviet republics were not attracted politically to Muslim countries, despite some attempts by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to entice them.

By the same token, Armenia’s religion was not visible during the Soviet period and only now in the post-independence stage is staging a comeback. In the process, Western popular culture has inundated Armenia, making it attractive for Muslim tourists from Iran.

When Armenia became independent, its amateur rulers of the day shortsightedly privatized most of the factories, dismantling its industrial infrastructure, and selling it as scrap metal to Iran and Turkey. As Armenia was not endowed with natural resources, it had to depend on information technologies (IT) and tourism. The latter has yet to be developed fully in order to serve as a lifeline for the economy.

Those two avenues for economic development can overcome the blockade of the country, unlike other products which need export routes.

As a tourist destination, Armenia is not competitive. Since its independence, Armenia’s citizens have been gravitating to Turkey and Georgia, because resorts in their own country have proved to be beyond their means. It is less expensive for an Armenian family to spend a week in Antalya, Turkey, or Batumi, Georgia, flight included, than head to Sevan Lake, 35 miles from the capital.

We had to wait for a Russian-Israeli blogger, Alexander Lapshin, who gained fame after being kidnapped and incarcerated in Azerbaijan for visiting Artsakh, to reveal to us this anomaly in Armenia’s tourism industry.

Topics: Armenia

He says one-way fare from Israel to Yerevan costs 180 euros, whereas from Israel to Tbilisi, Georgia, it costs 86 euros.

“In days I was searching for a ticket from Yerevan to Paris for the end of April and all one-way tickets cost 250 euros and it is still cheap and not every day. And the average price for a one-way ticket is 350 euros. Then I looked for options from Tbilisi and the ticket cost 130 euros.”

The same disparity exists in hotel accommodations. And every tourist will make that calculation and Armenia will lose its competitive edge. The statistic demonstrates how that competitiveness is lost. Thus, last year, 220,000 Iranians visited Armenia, which was a 16-percent rise from 2016, yet 322,000 Iranians visited Georgia and 362,000 visited Azerbaijan during the New Year (Now Ruz) at the start of spring.

One would think that Armenia suffering from high unemployment should have made itself more affordable to world tourism but that is not the case. The only captive audience that Armenia has is the diaspora, because for any price, they will not fly to Tbilisi or Baku, but head to Yerevan directly.

The modern airport in Yerevan, which offers one of the most enchanting arrivals for passengers, is run by Eduardo Eurenkian, and it charges high landing fees for foreign carriers. That fee is passed on to the traveling public.

As far as service industries are concerned, all employable people cannot find jobs. The conditions set by employers in the tourism industry could be considered criminal in other civilized countries. For example, many businesses advertise openings for attractive female applicants younger than 35. Here we find gender discrimination along with age discrimination, and on top of that, the insinuation of physical experience which borders on sexual inuendo.

Today, there are 22,000 Syrian Armenian refugees in Armenia. By the government’s admission, they have introduced a new culture in restaurant industry and new work ethic standards in other industries.

I happened to dine at one of the tiny restaurants operated by Armenians from Aleppo. The food was above average and the prices were moderate. It was owned by two partners, one working with his wife, the other with his mother. When I asked how they fared, they complained bitterly about the tax collectors. They said, “They don’t let us breathe. They are watching us daily. There is very little after we give them their share.”

This is where the economic strangulation of the country begins; that system will never allow the creation of a large, stable middle class, which is the economic backbone of any society.

Some cosmetic dispensations are publicized for the refugees but the taxman is everywhere to fatten himself and his supervisors, no matter what the repercussion for Armenia’s economy.

When a small restaurant owner has to suffer from bribery and corruption, one can imagine on what level bribery is practiced at large.

Business does not recognize patriotism and capital will flow where there is a healthy atmosphere for economic development. However, many Armenian venture capitalists, who could invest in safer countries, try to invest in Armenia, driven by a stubborn patriotism. But their counterparts in the country do not feel anywhere near the same level of patriotism and concern for the country’s economic development.

Armenia’s economic ills begin from that small restaurant in downtown Yerevan and climb up to the peak of the pyramid.

The day that restaurant thrives, the way for Armenia’s middle class will be paved. Thus, when tourists arrive, they will have more choices and the locals, more money.

 

 

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