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By Atom Markarian
The number of foreign nationals visiting Armenia rose by nearly one third to 162,000 last year, according to statistical data released by the government.

Government officials say the figures show that Armenia continues to become more attractive to tourists and business travelers. They say particularly encouraging is the fact that the growth continued after 2001, the year when the country celebrated the 1700th anniversary of adopting Christianity as a state religion.

The year-long festivities attracted thousands of more foreign visitors, many of them of Armenian origin. Diaspora Armenians from the United States and Western Europe continue to account for the bulk of tourists.

The government data is based on information received from immigration authorities and private business sources. Local hotels, for example, have calculated that most visitors come from the U.S. and France which have a large Armenian community. About 32 percent of them were from Russia and other ex-Soviet states.

According to Arman Manukian, the commercial director of the country’s largest Marriott Armenia Hotel, the official figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. “The growth began from a very low base a few years ago and has not yet reached a point where we can say that Armenia’s potential is used to a large extent,” he told RFE/RL.

Data provided to the government by local travel agencies shows that more foreigners visited Armenia in 2002 on business than for leisure. Only 35.5 percent of them can be considered tourists, the travel agents says.

Government sources say the increase, which is a welcome boost to the struggling Armenian economy, was made possible by the growing number of privately-owned hotels. That has also lowered accommodation prices seen as disproportionately high for Armenia. Manukian cautioned, however, that most visitors still find local hotels too expensive and continue to live in much cheaper private apartments.
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