Complaining about high prices and limited choices at home, Armenians this summer are opting to holiday abroad. The Armenian government, boasting that tourism is one of the economy’s fastest developing sectors, apparently sees little reason to encourage them to reconsider.
By law, Armenians who work five days a week are entitled to 20 days of paid vacation per year, a block of time that, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, is taken primarily in August. Disposable income for these holidays, however, is relatively modest. Armenia posted a per capita income of just $5,500 in 2011, the lowest rate in the region, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency.
But the prices for a vacation within Armenia do not reflect that limited income. At an August 8 press conference, Union of Domestic Tour Operators of Armenia Director Armine Adamian put the cost for a seven-day tour of Armenia at 1,500 euros, about $1,885. Other countries can be visited for half that sum, she argued.
“You see, if people can spend the same sum or even less for a vacation in European countries -- Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria -- or, for instance, Sri Lanka or Turkey, let alone the cheap offers in Georgia, why should they want to stay in Armenia?” elaborated Marine Ayvazian, a tour manager for one Yerevan travel agency.
With such consumers in mind, TV and radio stations and billboards in Yerevan advertise mostly seaside vacations abroad. Northeastern Armenia’s vast Lake Sevan may be somewhat of an alternative option, but faces stiff competition.
A fortnight stay in a single room (with breakfast) at a mid-level Sevan hotel runs between $1,260 and $1,400. By comparison, a similar-length stay at a mid-level beachside hotel in Italy or Spain can be arranged for approximately $1,500 - $2,000, and with a richer range of dining and entertainment options, Yerevan travel agencies claim.
The Armenian government professes little or no official concern that many Armenians are opting for such vacations abroad, although it has tried to encourage state employees to holiday at home by covering part of the costs for stays at Armenian resorts.
Hotels at Sevan or other holiday destinations are “fully booked,” officials maintain, and claim that the economy’s tourism sector is expanding by a phenomenal 25 percent per year.
“Except for a couple of hotels,” prices for a vacation in Armenia are “moderate,” asserted Deputy Economy Minister Ara Petrosian.
But those “moderate” prices seem overpriced to some.
“I lack the financial resources to have my vacation in Armenia. I don’t even think about it,” commented 50-year-old pharmacist Anahit Alexanian, who instead holidays in Georgia, Armenia’s northern neighbor.
Thousands of other Armenians appear to be doing the same. The Georgian government claims that the number of Armenian tourists increased by 22 percent this year (to over 408,000) compared with 2011, Newsgeorgia.ru reported.
Most make a beeline for Georgia’s Black Sea region of Achara. While prices in the central city of Batumi climb far higher, small seaside towns in Achara feature modest hotels with three meals a day and a four-person room for $50. Renting a room in a private house comes still cheaper.
With such prices, “very few [Armenians] will prefer expensive Sevan with its cold water and burning sun,” commented 35-year-old IT specialist Narine Babujian.
Yerevan travel agencies name both Georgia and Turkey as the most popular destinations for vacationing Armenians.
In an apparent attempt to deflect such travel decisions as summer approaches, more sensational print media often run stories about unknown skin diseases and infections allegedly plaguing Georgia’s Black Sea coast or about the rape of tourists in Turkey.
Rather than resorting to such tactics, Armenians would be better advised to make their own tourism sector more competitive, critics charge.
“We have almost no services here, and guests are discontented,” claimed the Union of Domestic Tour Operators of Armenia’s Adamian. A 2011 report from the World Economic Forum ranked Armenia as 90th among 139 countries – between Cape Verde and Botswana -- for the competitiveness of its tourism sector.
Mekhak Apresian, head of the Ministry of Economy’s tourism department, concedes that Armenia has some infrastructure shortcomings, but asserts that the country still could become a hot spot for foreign tourists. “We have all the prerequisites for it, and the dynamics of our development demonstrate it,” Apresian said.
Not exactly, according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization. Armenia supposedly trailed Georgia, the Caucasus’ top travel destination, by nearly 2 million visitors in 2011 – 758,000 compared with an alleged 2.8 million for Georgia. Azerbaijan fell into second place with 1.5 million tourists.
Those tourists who do visit Armenia tend to be mostly Diaspora Armenians, who come for visiting family or rediscovering their roots, travel agency representatives say. Iranians, eager for a vacation free of the social restraints that exist in the Islamic Republic, appear to be the one group of foreign tourists visiting Armenia in increasing numbers.
Deputy Economy Minister Petrosian, though, prefers to emphasize the increase. The number of tourists in 2011 represented a 10.3-percent increase since 2010, he claimed.
Nonetheless, the questions about why Armenians are not following foreign tourists’ supposed example remain. “The Armenian government must seriously consider all this,” said IT specialist Babujian.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.