Armenia tourism drive cashes in on ancient assets

16 February 2017

Armenia aims to exploit its ancient heritage – which includes a civilisation that predates the Egyptian pyramids – and its wine-making expertise to further boost its nascent tourist industry. Courtney Fingar reports. 

Age is just a number, as the expression goes. But for locations looking to attract tourism, an advanced age is a notable advantage. History is a major draw for travellers, and the longer the history, the better.

When thinking of ancient places to visit, minds tend to focus on Athens, Rome or Egypt’s pyramids. The world’s oldest Christian nation with one of the world’s oldest cities does not often come to mind – and that is something Armenia intends to change.

Making history count

Armenia’s prime minister, Karen Karapetyan, is quick to point out his country’s historical credentials. “We are one of the few oldest nations having statehood. Yerevan is 50 years older than Rome. An area very close to Yerevan, called Shengavit, is 6000 years old – a civilisation that is 1000 years older than Egypt’s pyramids. We are the first Christian nation and we are one of the first nations to start typography,” he tells fDi in a meeting in his offices on Yerevan’s Republic Square.

Tourism is already one of the main drivers of the Armenian economy: it contributed roughly 12% of GDP in 2016, a figure that is expected to rise to 13.7% in 2017, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. This compares to a world average of 3.1% and a European average of 9.6%.

Visitor numbers are on the rise, with Armenia seeing more than 12.5% year-on-year growth in international tourist arrivals since 2006, and the trend is expected to accelerate in the coming years.

But Armenia has barely even begun to fully capitalise on its rich heritage. The Development Foundation of Armenia (DFA), the country's national authority for investment, export and tourism promotion, has set out an ambitious programme of tourism development.

“Armenia has major tourism assets. We have a clean, unspoiled landscape and a diverse terrain, a fascinating cultural and historical heritage, fantastic food, brandy and wine, and unique religious tourism sites,” says Garen Mikirditsian, the DFA’s chief executive. “We are also a very tolerant country with good relations with people of all faiths.” More than 180,000 Iranians visited Armenia in 2016, adds Mr Mikirditsian.

Grape expectations

Armenia also has a new pitch to make to wine lovers who might wish to sample an old, yet undiscovered, market. Here, too, history has a role to play: the oldest wine-making location in the world has been found in Armenia, in the caves at Areni. Armenia has long had the right soil and water for wine making but had lost the aptitude for it, focusing instead on its world-famous brandy.

But Armenia’s wine industry is now in the midst of a renaissance, with exports growing, new technologies coming in and wineries being opened or renovated. The Vine and Wine Foundation of Armenia says the number of wineries in the country has increased from 25 to about 40 in the past seven years.

“Due to its high altitude, dry, sunny climate and volcanic soil, Armenia has an extraordinary natural environment for wine and was one of the cradles of wine production in ancient times. In recent history we were mostly known for brandy but now we see good wines coming out of Armenia because of the technology and expertise that foreign and local investors have brought,” says Mr Mikirditsian.