What You Need to Know About Armenia

Yerevans Opera House. Photograph 2008 Matthew Karanian

POPULATION: 3.21 million (2001 census)
LAND: 29,793 sq. km. (roughly the size of Belgium or the US state of Maryland)
CAPITAL: Yerevan (Founded 782 BC)
CURRENCY: Dram (1 US Dollar = 320 Armenian Dram)
LANGUAGE: Armenian, an ancient Indo-European language, is spoken by 96 percent of the population
ETHNICITY: Roughly 96 percent of the population is ethnic Armenian
RELIGION: Almost entirely Armenian Apostolic Christian, at least nominally
TOURISM: 510,287 tourist visas issued in 2007

Flights
All flights to Armenia arrive at the newly reconstructed Zvartnots Airport in Yerevan, the capital. Flights from Los Angeles and New York are direct, but not non-stop. The most popular European hubs for connections to Armenia are Amsterdam, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, and Vienna.

Internal Travel
Armenia is a tiny country, roughly the size of Belgium, so the lack of regularly scheduled commercial flights within the country is not an inconvenience to travelers. There are no Western-style superhighways, either, but the intercity roadway is in fair condition and it serves the entire country. Many of the country roads traverse mountains and are interrupted by switchbacks and sharp turns, so the traveling time is longer than one might guess from looking at a map. Still, the country is compact and easy to traverse.

Most buses and mini-vans operate out of two bus stations in Yerevan, with daily service to all of the major towns. There are no student discounts, but the fares are so cheap that you’ll think you got one. The six-hour trip to Stepanakert, for example, will cost only about $20. Smoking is prohibited on most mass transit–a relatively recent innovation–but a wide-open window is the only air conditioning you’ll encounter.

Private drivers are available for hire, and the convenience makes this a strong option, especially if you are traveling with a companion or two. Taxis are regulated by the state and charge about 120 drams (roughly 40 cents) for each kilometer traveled, but the price should always be negotiated in advance. Your hotelier can help you locate a good driver. Travelers should avoid the infrequent train service.

Money Matters
The cost-of-living in Armenia is low, and traveling can be inexpensive. But hotels and restauran’s in Yerevan can be as expensive as in any European city. If you eat in restauran’s that cater to the local population in Yerevan, you should be able to get by on as little as 3,200 drams (about $10) each day for food. You’ll spend five to ten times that amount if you dine at the restauran’s in the city center that cater to Western tastes.

Armenia is still largely a cash society. Credit cards and checks are not generally accepted, except by the larger hotels. Travelers’ checks are rarely negotiable. The unfortunate consequence is that you will need to carry plenty of cash. There are commission-free money exchangers throughout Yerevan who are eager to convert Dollars to the local currency, the Dram. At shops and restauran’s, US Dollars are accepted for larger transactions, but you will need to have Dram notes for daily incidentals. There are several ATM machines in Yerevan where you can get a cash advance on your credit card, in Armenian Dram.

Paperwork
Visas are required of most visitors and they’re easy to get. If you arrive in Armenia without a visa you may purchase one at the airport for about $50 or the equivalent in local currency. A separate visa is required for Karabakh, and can be obtained after your arrival.

When To Go
The Spring and Fall are the best season for visiting. Summers can get very hot, with temperatures in Yerevan approaching 40 degrees Celsius in August. The scarcity of air-conditioning makes it difficult to get any relief, but this is still the peak of the high season for tourists, which runs June through September.

Health
Travelers do not need to show proof of any vaccinations in order to gain entry. The worst illness that is apt to afflict any visitor is routine travelers’ diarrhea.

What to Bring
Bring your own prescription drugs if you use them, and any special medications that you require, including contact lens solution. Mosquito repellant may also be helpful, especially if you will be hiking in the evening. Just about anything else is available for purchase locally.

Safety
Armenia is a relatively safe travel destination. The civil unrest that followed the presidential elections of February 29 has subsided and was not impeding tourism during the author’s trip to Yerevan during April. Armenia has good relations and strong cultural and religious ties with the US and Europe. The greatest concerns to travelers are usually petty theft, and risk of injury from motor vehicle traffic.

Lodging
There’s a wide range of hotels in Yerevan, and European-standard rooms are now widely available. Lodging in the countryside is likely to be below standard, except at resorts such as Lake Sevan and in a few larger locales such as Gyumri, Alaverdi, Goris, Shushi, and Stepanakert.

Activities
Lake Sevan offers beautiful sandy beaches and swimming, although the water remains cold until July. This is one of the largest fresh-water alpine lakes in the world and it is a national treasure. Sailing and snorkeling are popular sports.

Mt. Aragats, which is the highest peak in today’s Armenia and which soars to 4,090 meters, attracts both professional and amateur hikers. Most of the mountain can be scaled without special equipment during the summer months when the snow pack is not deep. Permits are not required.

There are caving opportunities in the Yeghednadzor region, and mountain biking can be enjoyed just about anywhere in the countryside outside of Yerevan.

Read On
The Stone Garden Guide: Armenia and Karabakh, by Matthew Karanian and Robert Kurkjian, the authors of this article, is the most current guidebook dedicated solely to Armenia and Karabakh, and it is the source for much of the information that appears here. This 304-page guide is lavishly illustrated with color photographs and maps and has won three national book awards. Contact: Stone Garden Productions, PO Box 7758, Northridge, CA 91327. Telephone 1-888-266-7331. Internet: www.StoneGardenProductions.com
The Crossing Place by Phillip Marsden is an excellent travelogue, and Looking Toward Ararat by Ronald Suny traces the history of the Armenia’s back 3,000 years in a concise and readable style.

Tourists
A government announcement last month [June 18] that an estimated 600,000 tourists will travel to Armenia in 2008 suggests that Armenia’s tourism industry will remain strong, despite the civil unrest that followed February’s presidential election.

Earlier this year, some hotel operators reported that tourists had cancelled or postponed their plans to travel to Armenia because of the civil unrest of March 1, and the departing Armenian President Robert Kocharian expressed concern in mid-March that there might be a decline in tourism as a result of the post-election situation.

The projection that 600,000 tourists will travel to Armenia in 2008, if achieved, would be an increase of nearly 20 percent above the 2007 tally. Mekhak Apresian, the head of Armenia’s Department of Tourism, issued the projection during a press conference in Yerevan. Official government statistics for the number of visitors for this period are not yet available, however.

According to government statistics, 510,287 tourists visited Armenia last year, making 2007 the biggest year to date for Armenian tourism and continuing a trend in which each year’s tourist tally during the past seven years has broken the preceding year’s record. The half-million tourists who visited in 2007 represent a 33.5 percent increase above the previous year’s record of 382,200.

Tourism has grown by approximately 25 percent yearly since 2001. If the trend of the past several years continues, then more than a million tourists could travel to Armenia during 2010 or 2011.

The 2006 tourism tally of 382,200 was an increase of approximately 20 percent above the 318,563 tourists who the government reported to have visited in 2005. The number of tourists first broke the 100,000 barrier in 2001–a year when international terrorism curbed travel worldwide–with 123,262 visitors recorded. Only 45,000 tourists traveled to Armenia in 2000.

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