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Armenia Offers Iranian Tourists Breath of Fresh Air
Armenia attracts many tourists from Iran in search of a break and a relaxation of the rules they live under at home. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Mahmud Ali Reza has visited Armenia three times already this year and says it compares favourably with his home country Iran as a tourist destination.
“We have resort areas in Iran like the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, but first of all, it’s expensive to go there, and secondly, you can’t relax with your whole family. My wife can’t swim in the sea there – she can only go in covered from head to foot in the hejab,” he said. “If we want a good holiday, we come to Armenia.”
For many visitors from the Shia Muslim theocratic state of Iran, the liberal climate of Armenia, a traditionally Christian country, is an added bonus.
“Iran is a religious country, and we do not enjoy civil rights there since the religion bans them. But Armenia has freedom, like Turkey and Azerbaijan do,” Mahmud said.
The increasingly common sight of Iranian holidaymakers in Armenia reflects the growing relationship between the two states. Armenia’s short border with Iran is open to traffic, unlike those with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Armenia does not yet feature as a global holiday destination, although it has picturesque mountain scenery and ancient buildings.
Nelly Malkhasyan, director of the tour operator Mane, said Iranians came to Armenia because it combined the cultures of east and west in a way that was both familiar and foreign.
“To them, Armenia is just like Iran – but freer and more interesting,” she said.
Camella Karakhanyan of another tourist agency, Tatev, said Iranians were not particularly drawn to Armenia’s ancient culture or natural beauty.
“Although we show them our historical monuments and acquaint them with our history, they aren’t interested since their own country has enough of that for them. What Armenia provides them with is freedom,” she said, adding that Iranian women particularly enjoyed the chance to walk around, go shopping and relax free of the strictures of home.
The tourist boom began after the Iranian-Armenian border opened in 1990, and now seems to be accelerating. Mekhak Apresyan, who heads the Armenian economy ministry’s tourism department, said nearly 84,000 Iranian visitors were recorded in the first nine months of 2010, compared with 44,000 for the whole of last year.
Tourism is only part of a broader pattern of growing ties that include four major joint ventures to build an oil terminal, a railway, a hydroelectric power station on the river Araks and the third high-voltage power line between the two countries.
Armenian prime minister Tigran Sargsyan was in Tehran last week, discussing strengthening the economic relationship further. At the meeting, Iranian vice-president Mohammad Reza Rahimi expressed hope that bilateral trade would increase to a billion dollars a year, five times its current level.
The business relationship could well be built on the connections of men like Amir Said, an Iranian who has moved to Yerevan to do a post-graduate degree. He now intends to start a business here and marry an Armenian woman.
But that is a side of the relationship that many Armenians struggle with.
Anna Gevorgyan, an Iran expert at Yerevan State University’s Centre for Civilisation and Cultural Studies, said she welcomed the presence of Iranian businessmen but worried both about their acquisition of property and about the rise in intermarriage. She said half of the Iranian men coming to Armenia wanted to marry local women, while a third wanted to buy property.
“It’s a dangerous trend, because there are lots of Iranians, and if just one or two per cent of them buy property in Armenia, then in a few years we will face a serious demographic problem,” she said. “In addition… the children of [mixed] families are already nothing like Armenians. Although they are half Armenian, they are Iranian by religion and culture.”
Amir Said, meanwhile, is recommending the country to his friends in Iran.
“This year, friends of mine came to Armenia, and we went to the Tsakhkadzor resort and had a really good time. They’ll definitely be coming next year, too,” he said.
Arpi Makhsudyan is a correspondent for the Capital daily in Yerevan.
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