By Anna Saghabalian
The number of foreign travelers visiting Armenia rose by 10 percent to approximately 33,000 in the first quarter of this year, according to the latest government data.
Officials said on Thursday that the figures testify to a continuing growth in the tourism industry which is seen by the government as a potentially large sector of the Armenian economy.
Ethnic Armenians from the United States and Europe are believed to continue to make up the vast majority of foreign visitors. According to industry executives, non-Armenian travel also remains on the rise.
“There has been a serious growth since 1997 or 1998 in the number of groups of tourists that are not Diaspora Armenians,” said Arman Manukian, sales director of the Marriott Armenia hotel in Yerevan.
In the words of Angela Sax, deputy director of the Armenian Tourism Development Agency (ADTA), most of them come from France and Germany. She said there is also growing interest in the country shown by tourists from more far-flung corners of the world such as Japan and China.
The sector has experienced a steady and considerable growth since the late 1990s, resulting in the construction of new hotels and other private investments in the Soviet-era tourism infrastructure which still leaves much to be desired. The government reported a record-high 206,000 foreigner visits to Armenia last year, 27 percent up from 2002. With the peak period for holiday travel in the summer and early autumn, its first-quarter figures put Armenia on track to register a further increase this year.
Sax said the country should aim for receiving as many as 500,000 tourists a year and has potential for meeting that target in the near future. She said visitors are primarily attracted by Armenia’s old Christian heritage, hospitality and low rate of crime. But she added that the tourism industry’s more rapid expansion is seriously hampered by the still high cost of travel to and accommodation in Armenia as well as a lack of advertising abroad.