BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
Most people do it at some point in their lives– visit a place for artistic, cultural, educational, health, historic, nostalgic, photographic, recreational, relaxation, religious, restorative, spiritual, etc. reasons.
The places visited benefit economically, at least, but also by gaining relevancy and becoming familiar to the outside world, they become more “secure” in some ways. Those who have visited tell their stories and “outsiders” start to care about those places. Of course the local people also benefit through greater exposure to the rest of the world.
This is tourism. And, as industries go, it is relatively clean both environmentally (except for the fuels burned while travelling) and socially, though there is a dark underside to it such as the “sex tourism” that Thailand seems to be known for, the over-use/visitation of some destinations, and the soiling of pristine places such as the flanks of Mt. Everest.
That’s why so many countries and businesses are engaged in promoting tourism.
Our homeland is a fantastic destination for tourists. I am referring to ALL of it, even the parts under Turkish occupation. So many of the different touristic-thirsts (see the list on the first sentence), can be slaked by visiting Armenia. It’s not like visiting Costa Rica where the primary attraction is the outdoors, or Israel/Palestine where it’s all about history, or Las Vegas and its mind-numbing recreation.
To date, there has been a respectable, but far from sufficient, effort to build up the tourism industry in the Armenian-controlled parts of our homeland. Lots of people, and not just Armenians, visit to see our churches, climb our mountains, go to our spas, just hang out, etc. But far more can be done. It turns out the World Bank has a trust fund, initiated by Italy, to support heritage and sustainable tourism. U.N. agencies also support tourism development, such as the silk roads efforts in which the Republic of Armenia is involved.
What got me thinking about all this was the news item about three Armenians who are working on making Armenia a “dental tourism” destination. That is, a place people can go, especially from the developed world where services tend to be pricier, to get excellent quality care at a lower cost. I had mentioned “medical tourism” in a recent article, so it clicked– we need a very serious, coordinated, government-level plan and program to support/incubate tourism-oriented businesses in all of the areas where our homeland naturally excels.
There are many people engaging in such enterprises already. Their input and engagement should be sought. Part of any plan must be infrastructure development, and by this I don’t mean just hotels. I have been privy to laments that a treasure trove of still unexplored archaeological sites are intentionally kept unexposed (tragically, the country is effectively a buried museum), lest they be looted because the funds to adequately protect them are lacking. These historic and religious sites should be systematically rendered visitable. As part of the South Caucasus, Armenia sits in a biodiversity hot-spot. The country is mountainous and has excellent climbing opportunities. Adventure-outfits have been taking people to the backcountry for years now. Some of them are even expanding into Turkish-occupied Armenia, particular to serve the countless Armenians whose dream it is to climb Mount Ararat. This gradual return to the despoiled part of our homeland is also very important.
All these resources can be sustainably used in service of tourism. There are even people willing to pay to work in what’s called service tourism. Even this is something that has gone on at a low level– think of the efforts of Land and Culture Organization and AYF’s Youth Corps in its original form. If the church got its act together, pilgrimages could be organized, which are really nothing more than a form of tourism. Similarly, “educational tourism” could be developed by investing in higher education institutions coupled with the existing wealth of scientific brainpower in the RoA. Getting students from all over the world to study in Yerevan would build a huge network of people-connections that would benefit Armenians for decades on end.
If you have competence in any of the areas mentioned, start looking for others and connecting with the right agencies in Yerevan and Stepanakert to help build Armenia’s touristic future.