On May 11, the Armenian Hikers Association, or AHA as it has affectionately become known as, celebrated its 5th anniversary with a lavish banquet in Los Angeles. Over 240 AHA hike participants, supporters and donors were present to celebrate this important milestone.
Since its inception, AHA has grown by leaps and bounds, attracting fun-loving hikers from all over Southern California, as well as over 2,800 followers on its FaceBook page. It has created numerous friendships during its hikes that range from 5 to 8 per week. “It’s impossible to tell most of our participants didn’t know each other only a few years ago, some as short as a few months ago,” says Arthur Barsegyan, an AHA-Armenia board member as well as a hike leader. “You’d think they’ve known each other all their lives.” In addition to creating deep bonds, AHA has also become a support system to many, bringing a positive change into their lives. “After I joined AHA, I rediscovered myself and felt a sense of empowerment,” says Clauditte Sardarian. “AHA has not only become a part of my life, it has become a driving force in it too.”
What began as just another hiking group soon evolved into much more than what its name indicates. There was so much goodwill and potential amongst its participants, that simply focusing on hikes would have been inexcusable when part of that potential could be utilized to assist the Motherland. That’s when AHA-Armenia was born, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles and Yerevan with the mission to help develop ecotourism in Armenia and Artsakh.
Ecotourism has increasingly gained popularity in recent years. Adventure tourists travel the world in search of new and exotic destinations. Thanks to the beauty of the spectacular Armenian Highland, Armenia and Artsakh have finally been “discovered.”
“When AHA proposed to establish a branch in Armenia, we got very excited,” says Gevorg Gasparyan, president of AHA-Armenia in Yerevan. “The villages of Armenia and Artsakh were emptying at an alarming rate because people didn’t have work, and ecotourism was the easiest and quickest way to create jobs for them. It’s a multi-million dollar industry and why not bring some of it to our towns and villages? But in order to do that, we need trails that meet international standards, with proper accommodations, bed-and-breakfasts, motels, restaurants and stores. We have the nature, but lack the latter. And that’s what we decided to work on.”
Soon, a plan was devised consisting of three phases. Phase 1 involved improving the most popular existing trails in Armenia by installing markers that displayed vital information about the trails, like direction, distances, coordinates and access to the nearest 911 call center. The required funds were raised from AHA participants and supporters in a short time and work began in April of 2017. Stone markers were installed along 40 or so trails throughout Armenia. The project was completed in time for the tourist season. In fact, a group of 55 Los Angeles AHA participants traveled to Armenia last June and hiked the trails they had sponsored.
Phase 2 involves building the “Armenian Highland Trail,” stretching from the Georgian to the Iranian border, meandering through towns, villages, monasteries and important national and cultural monuments, eventually bringing all the trails in Armenia and Artsakh into one vast interconnected network. Work on phase 2 began this past spring. With a $20,000 matching grant from the United Nations Development Program and $15,000 of its own funds, a new 42 km long trail is currently being built in the Lori region, from Kobayr to Akhtala, passing through Odzun, Sanahin, Haghpat and Tsaghkashat.
The project is almost complete and European tourists have already begun using them. On June 13, a group of 40 Los Angeles AHA participants will hike on a section of this new trail before traveling to Artsakh where they will hike for 5 additional days. One of the trails will be from Shushi to Karintak where AHA is installing 3 bridges and doing several reroutes to make it safer and more accessible to tourists. The trail is part of the 178-mile Janapar Trail that extends from Vardenis in Armenia to Hadrut in Artsakh. Last June, ultra-marathoner Telma Ghazarian Altoon ran the entire 178 miles in 3 days to raise funds for AHA-Armenia. Most of the funds for this project were raised through Telma’s efforts.
Other completed projects in 2017 include:
- A reroute of the last few kilometers of the trail to Noravank Monastery so hikers can avoid being run over by tour buses and other vehicles.
- Mapping a circuit trail around Mt. Aragads that will go from village to village, similar to trails that exist around mountains like Mont Blanc. Work will begin when funds become available.
In addition to building trails, AHA has extended help to organizations and groups that are involved in hiking and the outdoors. It has donated to ONEArmenia’s “HikeArmenia” project, to the Hatis Hiking Group, to Research on Armenian Architecture, donated gear to the rock climbing club of Yerevan State University, donated bicycles to the children of Tsar village in Artsakh, and regularly sponsors and supports the “Impossible is Possible” hiking group for visually challenged individuals in Armenia.
“We are a small nation, but our biggest asset is our people, both here in Armenia and the Diaspora,” says Gevorg Gasparyan. “And when we’re united, we can accomplish much. That’s what AHA has shown during these last few years, that when we work together, hand in hand, we can transform Armenia into a paradise of which every Armenian will be proud of.”
Ecotourism may not transform Armenia into a paradise all by itself, but it’s a sure way of pulling rural communities out of the dire economic situation they’re in, an important precondition required to turn a country into a paradise, and that’s where AHA is pouring all its efforts into.