Karabakh Keen to Attract Visitors
Tourism seems one of the less obvious industries to take off in an unrecognised territory like Nagorny Karabakh, but the authorities there are keen to encourage visitors.
Officials in Karabakh say the number of visitors rose by 30 per cent in the first nine months of 2010 compared with the same period the previous year, although the increase only brought the total to 8,000.
Since a separatist war against Azerbaijani forces ended in a ceasefire in 1994, the Armenians of Karabakh have run their own affairs and claim independent status. This has not been recognised by the international community, which upholds Azerbaijan’s assertion of sovereignty over the region.
Sergei Shahverdyan, head of the Karabakh government department for tourism, says travellers are undeterred.
“Our unrecognised status is not harming the development of tourism,” he said.
Shahverdyan said tourist agencies in Karabakh had found private tour operators abroad willing to work with them.
“For many years Azerbaijan tried to interfere with this cooperation, sending protest notes to the organisers of international tourism fairs to block the participation of delegations from Karabakh, and sometimes they were successful. The problem was resolved some years ago, and we’re no longer experiencing these difficulties,” he said.
Popular visitor attractions include the 13th century Christian monastery at Gandzasar, and older ones at Amaras and Dadivank, as well as the archaeological remains of the city of Tigranakert.
Karabakh has a dozen hotels, and some villages have set aside rural houses to let out.
Tour operators say they could attract far more visitors, but as Arous Adamyan, director of the Varanda travel firm, pointed out, poor infrastructure makes it a hard sell.
“The dirt and mess around some attractions may also could give tourists an unfortunate impression,” he added.
Years of isolation and lack of international recognition means Karabakh has been slow to recover from the war damage of the early 1990s. Potential investors are scared off by the commercial risks and by the hostility of Azerbaijan’s government.
The government has limited funds to spend on tourism, and spending this year will be much the same as in 2010, at around 1.3 million US dollars.
As things stand, Shahverdyan acknowledges that the state of the tourist infrastructure is a constraint on visitor numbers.
For some hardy travelers, however, it is the recent war and Karabakh’s indeterminate status that are a draw.
“The day after I arrived in Armenia, I came to Karabakh so that I could see with my own eyes how people have lived since the war, what they think about resolving the conflict, how the country is developing,” a 35-year-old French tourist said.
He was willing to give only his first name, Yves, as he is hoping to visit the Azerbaijani capital Baku at a later date when he gets a new passport and can avoid awkward questions about having a Karabakh visa stamp.
Jenny, a 27-year-old American, came to Karabakh at the suggestion of friends in Armenia.
“I was interested to see what conditions I would find in a country which is described variously on the internet,” she said. “Of course you can’t compare the quality of the service here with what we’re used to… but it’s obvious people are doing all they can to receive tourists and serve them well.”
Anahit Danielyan is a correspondent for the Armedia news agency.