By Irina Hovannisian
The number of foreign tourists visiting Armenia is projected to surpass this year a record-high level registered by the government in 2006, a senior official said on Thursday.
Ara Petrosian, a deputy minister of trade and economic development dealing with the local tourism industry, said the number will rise by almost 20 percent to 480,000.
The projection is contained in an annual tourism development plan approved by the government earlier in the day. The plan sets aside some 70 million drams ($195,000) in public funds for promotional campaigns designed to boost foreigners’ interest in Armenia. The sum, though modest in absolute terms, is double what the government spent for that purpose last year.
“The state raises its contribution to the industry every year,” said Petrosian. “Private investments are also on the rise.”
In particular, the government wants to attract more foreign visitors to the central Armenian town of Tsaghkadzor known for its ski resorts. In a separate decree, it declared Tsaghkadzor a national “tourism center” that will receive 180 million drams in government funding this year.
Tourism is becoming an increasingly important sector of the Armenian economy, having seen rapid growth since the late 1990s when its development was declared a top government priority. President Robert Kocharian has said that the country should be able to attract half a million visitors annually in the near future.
The increased influx of tourists, most of them foreign nationals of Armenian descent, was particularly visible last year. Virtually all hotels in central Yerevan and flights to and from the Armenian were fully booked from August through October, the traditional peak period for travel to Armenia.
Petrosian estimated the sector’s 2006 revenues at over $300 million. Local travel firms say the sector’s more rapid expansion is also hampered by the high cost of travel and accommodation and the still underdeveloped tourism infrastructure in regions outside Yerevan.