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Sabeh has long bleached hair, and for once she does not have to hide it in public. The young woman is one of thousands of Iranians traveling to neighboring Armenia during two-week celebrations of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, that began on Monday.


“I have come here for concerts, for fun and just to see the culture. I love Armenian culture, churches and things like that,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service shortly after arriving in Yerevan by bus from Tehran.

Sporting red baggy pants and a white jacket, Sabeh could already feel the difference between her country’s stringent Islamic code of conduct and appearance for women and a more liberal environment in Armenia.

“Yeah, of course I feel freer,” she said, grinning. “In Iran, they have restrictions on wearing clothes and we have no fun. I hope to have fun here.”

Armenia -- Sabeh, an Iranian tourist, speaks to RFE/RLs Armenian service in Yerevan, 21Mar2011.
So do at least 10,000 other Iranians of different ages and social background that are expected to visit Armenia in the next two weeks. Farsi speech can already be heard across downtown Yerevan, with groups of tourists -- many of them wearing Western-style clothing -- strolling in the streets, taking pictures and visiting its numerous cafes and restaurants.

“It’s my first-ever trip to Armenia,” said one Iranian woman. “It’s a new country for me and it’s nice, good. And I think people here are very, very calm.”

For the Iranian tourists, visiting Armenia is also a rare opportunity to see and hear exiled Iranian singers banned in the Islamic Republic. Several such pop stars will give concerts in Yerevan’s biggest indoor sports arena in the coming days.

Tereza, a young Armenian working for a local travel agency, expected capacity crowds at the 7,000-seat Hamalir arena as she briskly sold tickets to newly arrived tourists on Monday morning. “If things continue like this, all the seats in the Hamalir will be sold out,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

“It’s illegal to have such concerts in Iran,” explained one Iranian man. “There are some restrictions due to the regime. So they have to come to Armenia for concerts.”

Iranian music will also be played in some of Yerevan’s night clubs. They have reportedly been booked by Iranian DJs and entertainers.

The influx of Iranian tourists, which began in earnest two years ago, may not be massive by international standards but it creates a logistical headache for Armenian travel agencies grappling with a lack of accommodation and other underdeveloped tourism infrastructure. All Yerevan hotels have already booked practically in full for the next two weeks, forcing them to accommodate many visitors in private apartments or small hotels outside the city.

Armenia -- An Iranian couple takes pictures in Yerevans Republic Square, 21Mar2011.
“We don’t have enough hotels,” complained Arlen Davudian, the owner of the Tatev Tour agency. “According to our estimates, there are only between 3,700 and 4,000 hotel beds in Yerevan.”

Speaking to RFE/RL, Davudian estimated the number of Iranians that will visit Armenia during this year’s Nowruz holiday at 12,000. “People cite illogical numbers of Iranian tourists: 40,000, 100,000,” he said. “They are grossly exaggerated. Our city does not have the capacity to receive that many guests.”

The businessman said many more Iranians would travel to Armenia if it had more and cheaper hotels. The Armenian government has so far done little to address that problem, he said.

Even so, the influx of Iranians appears to have already given a massive boost to Armenia’s tourism industry. Travel firms and economic analysts say Iran’s 70 million-strong population holds much greater revenue potential for the sector.

“A total of $12 million in cash should come here from Iran in the next two weeks,” said Davudian. “Tourism could earn this country very serious revenues. There just has to be a state approach to this.”
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