More than War: Tourism business building to show another side of Karabakh

Natural beauty is NKR's most marketable attraction
A tour in Karabakh begins with the “grandma and the grandpa” sculpture located on the slope of the hill, the visit card of Karabakh. The Ghazanchetsots Church in Shushi, Gandzasar, Dadivank monasteries, the Kachaghakaberd (a first century fortres., believed to be a Christian monument, although Christianity was adopted as a state religion in 301 A.D.) and the Sarsang reservoir are just a few sites that serve up the beauty of Karabakh (referred to by its ancient name, Artsakh, by many). And the rich nature of the locale seems even more beautiful as the hospitable people in this place welcome the visitors with warmth in their smiling eyes.

“It’s different in the place where we live – everybody cares for himself: but here people open their doors, treat the guests and surround them with such a hearty warmth that the feeling of being a foreigner disappears very quickly,” says Joyce Satyan, 68, an Australian of Armenian descent.

Located on the eastern and south-eastern mountainous and the pre-mountainous part of the Small Caucasus range, Artsakh, some 340 kilometers from Yerevan, stretches from Lake Sevan basin to River Arax.

Kararbakh has a history of more than 100,000 years (Azokh cave and the jawbone of a pre-human found in the cave date back to 300,000 years), witnessed by numerous material evidences.

Comprised of Martakert, Askeran, Martuni, Hadrut, Shushi, Kashatagh and Shahumyan regions, the 12,000 square kilometers of Artsakh are populated with about 150,000 people.

Outside countries know Karabakh because of the war with Azerbaijan. But more, too, are coming to know her through tourism.

Armo Tsaturyan, NKR Minister for Territorial Management and Infrastructure Development, says: “The tourists’ interest has been growing since 2000 as the political situation in Artsakh settled and the atmosphere of threat disappeared. After all, tourism is money and people don’t travel with empty pockets: tourism may turn decisive for the development of a small beautiful country like this.”

The Artsakh development agency acting under the Ministry says 4,000 tourists visited Artsakh in 2005. Until now the number of visitors to Artsakh in 2006 has been 4,600. The representatives of the agency say the annual growth of the visits makes 20 percent. The growth is mainly facilitated by the development of infrastructures. The agency also contributes to the latter, offering loans to small and medium enterprises.

The agency is mainly engaged in tourism information. It prepares booklets about the history of NKR that serve as a guide for foreigners. The guide will soon have also an electronic version.

“The agency cooperates with Armenia Tourism Development Agency (ATDA). We try to bring the visitors of Armenia to Karabakh. It is too soon yet to work with foreign countries directly to attract foreigners also to Karabakh,” says Armen Avagyan, the director of the agency. “There are still too many shortcomings in this country that need to be improved: the quality of services is still low, we drastically lack places of entertainment and the tour operators are quite passive.”

When speaking of the shortcomings Minister Tsaturyan points out mainly the problem of the roads.

“The roads are the first precondition for tourism development: there are monasteries in the Hadrut region where you need a whole day to get to because of the damaged roads. Still, the roads have been noticeably improved during the last several years: the North-South motorway alone has largely facilitated to the development of tourism. It takes now some 4 hours to get from Yerevan to Stepanakert instead of the former 8-9 hours,” adds Tsaturyan.

The 169-kilometer Hadrut-Stepanakert-Askeran-Martakert motorway, the locals say is the skeleton of Karabakh. $25 million donated during the Hayastan All-Armenian Foundation telethons have been allotted for the construction of the road. At the moment 100 kilometers are already operating.

The hotel construction business has also gained a new momentum. There are 8 hotels in Stepanakert, the capital of the republic, alone. 5 or 6 more hotels will operate in the future.

“Hotel construction has quite developed especially in Stepanakert. A hotel financed by benefactor Levon Hayrapetyan has been built also on the bank of the river Khachen in the village of Vank. At the moment there is one operating hotel in Shushi. Another one is planned for construction in Hadrut,” says Tsaturyan. “Hotel construction is an indicator of the existing demand. And the demand is mainly provided by the visiting Diaspora Armenians. The available hotels do not suffice on holidays.”

Australian Armenian Hakob Abolakian, shareholder and director at the hotel “Nairi” also confirms the seasonal overload of the hotels.

“It was not the case in former times. Sometimes rooms are full for months and we have to look for apartments for rent to accommodate the visitors to Artsakh,” says Abolakian, adding “Nairi” hotel alone has had 5,000 visitors this year.

Shakeh Hakobyan, representative of the Australian “Travel Café” tour agency also confirms the developments in the business. Hakobyan opened her office three years ago to organize tourist visits to Armenia and Karabakh.

“We bring some 300-400 tourists to Armenia each year and 100-150 of them visit Artsakh without fail. The visitors are mainly Diaspora Armenians, but there are also foreigners who visit Karabakh because of the interest they have,” mentions Hakobyan. “Of course, there are shortcomings in the services here, but the views of the locale enchant the visitors so much that some of them even think of settling in either Armenia or Karabakh.”

For Noyemi Balanjyan, 70, a Diaspora Armenian, seeing Karabakh has been “an old dream”.

“The changes in Artsakh in the recent years are noticeable in all spheres. The roads have improved; the discipline and the cleanness are evident. There are people who do not believe in this, but I’m frank in saying I would not hesitate even a minute and would come to the fatherland to live the rest of my life here if any of my daughters agreed to move here with me,” Noyemi says.