Sevan or Sea?: More Armenians choosing Georgia as holiday destination

Georgia’s sea has drawn Armenians away from their lake.

According to preliminary data from the summer holiday season, at least twice as many Armenians took Georgian Black Sea holidays this year over last.

And though Sevan’s crowded beaches should hardly signal alarm for tourist business there, tourism agencies say Georgia’s pumped-up appeal is reaping rewards that put Lari in the bank by Armenians who previous spent their drams at Sevan.

While still awaiting statistics reflecting the “velvet season”, the Armenian Tourism Development Foundation estimates that 30-35,000 Armenians made their holiday in Georgia (through August), as opposed to 15,000 for the entire season last year.

And, if it is the sea that has drawn them, it may be marketing that attracted their interests. This summer, Yerevan sidewalks were thick with whiteboards offering “special deals” to Batumi and Kobuleti.

At the beginning of summer a special train service was opened Yerevan-Batumi. And by the end of summer an Armenian consulate had opened in Batumi to assist the influx of Hyastancis.

Felix Simonyan, director of the Armenian Tourism Development Foundation, says the sea is the main attraction.

But Tatevik Bezhanyan, manager of Areg Tour, says low prices played as big a part.

Naira Kocharyan, 44, who spent her summer vacations with her daughter in Kobuleti, says her trip had more to do with prices than natural resource. She and her daughter spent $270 for a 10-day package.

“Making holiday in Armenia is very expensive,” says Bezhanyan.

For instance, a reservation in a resort house in Jermuk cost 30,000 drams ($79) per person, about equal to the average monthly salary in Armenia today. Yet in Kobuleti, one person can stay for seven days on 45,000 (about $118).

While in Kobuleti and in Sevan, there are a variety of price ranges, it seems that the introduction of the train service, added to the attraction of the sea, has had the greater appeal for budget-minded Armenian tourists.

Simonyan says the Armenian tourism side has countered the Georgian attraction by developing tourism in the Lori region town of Stepanavan, where Georgians also make their holidays. He said statistics for the latest season will not be available until October.

While, until now, better services are to be found in Sevan (though hot water is still seen as a luxury in family-priced guesthouses), the combination of budget and sea has turned Georgia into the Caucasus Rivera for many Armenians.

“If the prices set in Georgia remain the same and the quality of services improves, the number of holiday makers there will grow year after year; this will mean the number of holiday makers in Armenia will simultaneously drop,” says Bezhanyan.

Already some Sevan operators are feeling the drain.

Vilik Simonyan, the director of the “Sevan” motel located on the shore of Lake Sevan says his hotel (which only operates in summer) received about 350 guests this year, whereas last year it took in 500. A room there costs about $40 a night (for three).

Simonyan says middle-class vacationers that might before have been his guests, are now Georgia-bound.

“That means our incomes will drop and we will be unable to provide high quality of services. I suppose people are attracted by the idea of making their holidays abroad more than the prices in Georgia. Still, I can’t deny the fact the prices in some of the resorts in Sevan are high,” says Simonyan.

Armenians make up most of Georgia’s tourists, but they are not its only market.

According to Regnum news service (www.regnum.ru), in the first six months of this year 189,935 CIS residents visited Georgia, of which 67,870 were Armenian – an increase of 48 percent over the previous year.