By Anna Saghabalian
A Yerevan-based travel agency hopes to find a new niche in Armenia’s burgeoning tourism industry, pioneering weekend tours of Armenian-controlled territories in Azerbaijan that surround Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Yants Service firm has launched an advertising campaign designed to get Armenians to visit the mostly deserted lands that were major battlefields in their successful 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. Few of them have done so thus far.
“Have you seen the liberated territories?” reads a Yants Service advertisement posted in a newspaper on Tuesday. “Don’t be late and visit the liberated territories of Artsakh on weekends,” it adds, listing most of the seven Azerbaijani districts occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the war.
Readers were also informed that the cost of the two-night tour package covering accommodation, food and transportation will average 85,000 drams ($190) drams per person. Avetik Ghukasian, a Yants Tour manager, told RFE/RL that the tour operator has so far received only several phone calls from potential clients inquiring about details of the trip.
The tour of the occupied territories could gauge the extent of public curiosity about one of the most tangible results of the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan. Although they are commonly called “liberated territories” in Armenia and Karabakh, the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert have repeatedly expressed readiness to trade all but one of those districts for international recognition of Armenian control over Karabakh. This formula is reportedly at the heart of a peaceful settlement which international mediators say may be signed by the end of this years.
The areas around Karabakh were populated by hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis before the war. Virtually all of them fled their homes in 1993-1994 ahead of advancing Armenian forces. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, about 15,000 Armenians have settled there over the past decade. The vast majority of them are concentrated in the Lachin district that serves as the shortest overland link between Armenia and the disputed region. The Armenians have ruled out its return to Azerbaijan.
According to Yants Tour’s Ghukasian, the new service is primarily intended for citizens of Armenia that are free to visit the occupied territories without a government permission. He said foreigners’ access to those areas is restricted by the authorities in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
Ghukasian said the idea to bring tourists there was floated by the travel agency’s director after he traveled to Karabakh and the surrounding regions with his colleagues last year. “We liked the area very much,” he said. “The territories we saw are very beautiful.”
Visitors will see the occupied lands, still littered with land mines, mainly through the windows of a Yants Tour mini-bus and will spend the two nights at hotels in Stepanakert and the southeastern Armenian town of Sisian. The tour package includes sight-seeing within Karabakh as well.
According to NKR government data, more than 3,000 foreign citizens, many of them Diaspora Armenians, visited Karabakh last year. Officials in Stepanakert expect the number of visitors to jump by over 50 percent this year. They say the share of non-Diasporan foreigners in the overall number of tourists has steadily increased in recent years.