Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Nagorny Karabakh Woos Tourists

The Karabakh Armenians aim to overcome security fears by trumpeting the region’s ancient monasteries and beautiful scenery.
By Ashot Beglarian
Twelve years after war ended in Nagorny Karabakh, the unrecognised republic is seeking to attract greater numbers of tourists to enjoy its unspoilt scenery and medieval churches.



Large sums have been invested in the tourism sector, especially by businessmen from the Armenian diaspora. The Swiss firm Sirkap Armenia has built several hotels at a cost of more than 1.5 million US dollars.



There’s been a big increase in the number of hotels, as memories of war recede. There are now more than 20 in Nagorny Karabakh, half of them in the capital Stepanakert. Two new ones, with about 100 rooms between them, are being built in the town’s central square.



The old capital of Shushi (known by the Azerbaijanis as Shusha), which was heavily destroyed in the war in 1992, is also being re-developed. A Soviet-era 11-storey hotel is being rebuilt and is expected to open its doors again within the next two years. In addition, there are plans to reopen the sanatoria that attracted thousands of summer visitors in former times.



Karabakh’s foreign ministry says that the number of tourists is increasing by 30-40 per cent every year and that last year there were 5,000 from more than 60 countries. The majority - around 70 per cent - were ethnic Armenians from around the world.



For many people, Karabakh is still a war-zone and most western governments advise their citizens against travelling there on grounds of safety. It is still part of the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan.



This is enough to deter curious visitors. Nic Keulemans, a tourist from Belgium, said he was overwhelmed by the scenery in Karabakh, although he was still a little worried about the problem of mines.



“The monasteries are also interesting,” he said. “I visited Gandzasar and the church in Shushi. On the whole my impressions were good. I didn’t like the fact that because of the war there was limited access to certain territories. I think mines and unexploded ordnance still present a certain danger. They can be on fields, hills and remote mountain paths. And that gets in the way of organising a real holiday.”



Sergei Shakhverdian, head of both the Aspar tourist firm and the recently created Agency for Tourism Development, sees one of his roles as reassuring foreign visitors.



“The main thing is to convince people that it is safe in Karabakh and that is what we are consistently doing,” he said.



Karabakhis point out that their home region is packed with attractions that are all the more attractive for being virtually unknown to the outside world. They include 1,700 architectural monuments, including 600 monasteries and 500 churches, ruined palaces, castles and forts.



Shakhverdian said that the mass of medieval religious sites also made Karabakh a very special place for Christian pilgrims. He pointed out that the region contains the grave of the early Christian saint Elisei; that the 13th century Gandzasar monastery claims to have the head of John the Baptist; and the ancient Amaras monastery has the mausoleum of St Grigoris.



The tourism industry is still very much in its infancy in Karabakh. The government budget allocated for the sector for this year is just 4,000 dollars.



Although the scenery is a major attraction, visitors say that there is very little infrastructure for staying outside the main two towns, as there are no campsites and no car rental available. The tourist agents say they dream of developing Karabakh as a ski resort, but that would need huge amounts of investment.



The ministry of territorial management has begun a partnership with the tourist development agency of Armenia, which provides the only route into Karabakh for visitors - a road from Yerevan to Stepanakert, which is 360 kilometres long.



The minister, Armo Tsaturian said, “The development of tourism in Nagorny Karabakh would receive a significant boost if there was an air-link.”



In order to attract new visitors, the Karabakh government is publishing a new guidebook. It is also promoting Karabakh at tourist exhibitions.



In May, the government here rented a pavilion at the big tourist exhibition in Moscow, where they handed out promotional material and offered visitors Karabakh wine to taste.



The opening of the display turned into an angry confrontation, when a group of Azerbaijani students sitting in the hall protested loudly. But Shakhverdian denied reports that the pavilion had closed after the protests.



“Information that the Nagorny Karabakh display in Moscow had been shut down came from the Azerbaijani embassy in Russia,” said Shakhverdian. “Right from the start of the exhibition, the embassy of Azerbaijan reacted very strongly to our presence and tried to persuade the organisers to close the display, but when they understood that it wouldn’t work they demanded that at the very least the name of our display was changed from the Nagorny Karabakh Republic to Nagorny Karabakh.



“However, to its credit, the Moscow government did not give in to blackmail and the exhibition passed off normally, according to our plans.”



Shakhverdian said that the furore surrounding the event had actually attracted more visitors to the Nagorny Karabakh pavilion, curious to know what had caused all the fuss. He hoped some of those visitors would make their way to Karabakh itself.



IWPR’s Baku office contacted Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Tahir Tagizade, for an official reaction to the campaign to attract tourists to Karabakh.



Tagizade said that Azerbaijan was “not in principle against advertising the tourist attractions of Nagorny Karabakh because Nagorny Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and soon after the restoration of the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan this advertising will be beneficial to the region”.



However, Tagizade warned foreigners visiting Nagorny Karabakh without official permission from Baku that they risked being barred from Azerbaijan.



Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert. Azerbaijan editor Shahin Rzayev in Baku contributed to this report.

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