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By Atom Markarian
The government pledged on Thursday to “aggressively” promote Armenia as an attractive travel destination for visitors from around the world and thereby bolster its expanding tourism industry.

In their final meeting of the year, ministers approved a special “state program for tourism development in 2005” submitted by the Ministry of Trade and Economic Development. “The main objective of the program is an active and aggressive advertising campaign in the international tourism markets,” Deputy Trade Minister Ara Petrosian said after the cabinet session.

The government has repeatedly described tourism as one of the most promising sectors of the Armenian economy and says efforts to spur its development are paying off. The number of foreign citizens visiting the country has been steadily growing in recent years and, according to preliminary government data, has totaled 260,000 in 2004. The figure reported in 2003 was 206,000.

The sector’s expansion is evidenced by the emergence of new hotels in Yerevan and outside it as well as more frequent commercial flights to and from Armenia. They were almost fully booked last summer and early autumn, the traditional peak period for travel.

Nonetheless, the country’s tourism infrastructure still leaves much to be desired -- one of the reasons why most of the tourists are of Armenian descent. Petrosian said Diaspora Armenians made up 60 percent of all visitors this year. He said the sector’s further growth is slowed down by many Westerners’ persisting perception of the entire region as a hotbed of instability and ethnic conflict.

But Petrosian added that he expects more of them to become interested in the South Caucasus after last Sunday’s catastrophic tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people in Southeastern Asia, including some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Analysts say the apocalyptic disaster could scare away Western tourist from key ocean resorts.

“I think that there will be serious shifts in the structure and geography of global tourism,” Petrosian told reporters. “Tourists will be looking for new places and opportunities. The human need for travel will exist regardless of calamities and other emergency situations.”
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