A Visit to Meghri: Reporter explores tourism potentialities in Armenia’s southernmost region

Meghri by night reminds an amphitheatre lost in lights. Rows gradually lead to the top and merge into the outline of scattered mountain peaks in the dark sky.

I am staying overnight at Areviq guesthouse (B&B) in the town’s Small District (Pokr Tagh). The other part is Big District (Mets Tagh). There is only a pedestrian road to the guesthouse – the short street with narrow old-fashioned houses ends at the entrance of Areviq.

Hotel manager Armine Petrosyan bought one of the houses in Small District and turned it into a bed-and-breakfast hotel, which they say is more like a “people’s house” (during the Soviet times people’s houses were originally leisure and cultural centers built with the intention of making art and cultural appreciation available to the working classes).

With her background in architecture Petrosyan researched the Small District and submitted a business proposal to UNESCO on boosting Meghri’s economy through restoration and utilization of the town’s cultural heritage. At this point the project is in UNESCO donor booklet.

“This house and the one next to it where we have opened a crafts workshop have been purchased with Izmirian Foundation’s financial support. I am trying to reintroduce the idea of the “people’s house” with all its traditions. The Small District has preserved its unique architectural profile due to the fact that vehicles have failed to intrude, it has not been distorted or subjected to urban development,” says Petrosyan.

The house now hosting Areviq once belonged to prominent Mezhlumyan family of doctors. This was a district of wealthy people and was once considered town center with a hospital, a library, 17th-century St. Hovhannes (St. John) church. Many of the houses are on the verge of collapse, but even so they stand out for classical décor of doors and windows – mostly wooden, elaborately carved and arched. The interior includes decorated fireplaces and wooden ceilings.

Petrosyan is not a native of Meghri, but does her best to save the Small District with its residential houses of cultural-historical value. She believes it can become a hospitality center to offer – if developed – eco-, agro-, and cultural tourism opportunities given its urban atmosphere. Her future plan includes parks, tea-houses, and restaurants offering national cuisine.

“I have come to understand the political and economic value. This sector is highly important for Armenia and has to be activated and consolidated. We you want to stick paper to the wall, you fix the corners and edges, not the center, right? And in Armenia we are only fixing Yerevan, but that’s not the proper way,” she says.

Meghri in the morning is orange: the sun shining brightly, the colorful fruit set against the vivid green in orchards, the autumn hues turn Meghri into a dream town. Women of Small District dry persimmons in their courtyards. Many have peeled and threaded the dark brown fruit like beads and hung them like chains.

“Megri’s natural-climatic conditions are found nowhere else in Armenia. And that’s the best advantage – figs, pomegranates, persimmon, kiwi grow there, which in itself is a sight worth seeing. These mountains and rocks create good opportunities for developing adventure tourism,” says Armen Shahbazyan, in charge of OSCE PIP office in Syunik.

Enterprise Development and Market Competitiveness project (in cooperation with United States Agency for International Development) and OSCE Office in Yerevan's Project Implementation Presence (PIP) in Syunik have included Meghri in their joint project aimed at tourism development.

The town with population of 4,800 and on a 400-kilometer distance from Yerevan is Armenia’s southern gate. The state border and the River Arax separate it from Iran.

Meghri-based tour guide Lilit Khachatryan says Armenia’s profile starts or ends with Meghri. The sources of employment here are wine and preserve making factories, and Agarak copper-molybdenum combine 10 km from Meghri.

“People mostly earn their living by selling fruits and dried-fruits. Food in Meghri is especially expensive,” says Lilit. “The state doesn’t allow us to purchase staples imported from Iran directly at the border, meaning it passes by us, then Meghri residents go to Yerevan, buy it for high prices, bring back and resell it for even higher prices.”

In the Big District persimmon “chains” are hanging in the balconies of residential buildings. When passing by private houses and greeting the owners (usually out in their courtyards), they see you are not local and invite you in to show their hospitality by treating you to the treasures of this fertile land.

“Our rocks and mountains are rough, but people, in contrast, are tolerant, hospitable and open-hearted. Meghri has huge potential for tourism, which would also boost the economy and make Meghri people’s life better,” says Khachatryan.

Shahbazyan believes the fact that Megri borders with Iran has to be made proper use of.

“Regional packages [for tourists] are quite common now. They will come see Meghri and continue to Iran. Another advantage is that they travel to Yerevan via Meghri. During Nowruz [Iranian New Year] if we manage to keep them at least a day longer in Meghri it would mean inflow of money directly to Meghri. We have to think how to interest them. We could hold one of Iranian singer’s concerts here,” says Shahbazyan.

While international structures are thinking of ways to boost tourism in the south end of Armenia, people have their daily troubles to take care of by their own formula of overcoming the challenges of life in a remote land.

Taxi driver Davit Hambartsumyan says “some are poor, some are better off. Or, rather, we work hard, but don’t earn well. We wake up early in the morning, spend the whole day on the run, return home in the evening, and what’s the benefit? Nothing.”

“No use, no profit,” unanimously say also the women of Meghri, who are trying to earn their families’ living with the harvest from their orchards – they barter fruit for cabbage, carrots, beets and potatoes with villagers from other provinces.

Meghri has wide opportunities not only tourism-wise. With investments a number of branches of economy can be developed, which in turn would create new jobs.

“Otherwise, young people are moving from Meghri. There is no community development project to keep people here. And for how long can people survive by selling fruits and dried-fruits?” says Khachatryan.