After years of rapid growth, the number of Iranian tourists visiting Armenia appears to have fallen significantly this year amid an increasingly adverse impact of international sanctions on Iran’s economy.
In recent years, Armenia has become a major travel destination for Iranians attracted by its more liberal environment and proximity. According to Armenian government data, more than 134,600 of them visited Iran’s sole Christian neighbor last year, up from some 120,860 in 2010. The influx was particularly visible in March, during two-week celebrations of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi hailed this phenomenon when he visited Yerevan late last year. “I hope that one day one million Iranian tourists will visit Armenia,” Salehi said, calling for the introduction of visa-free travel between the two neighboring states.
Official statistics for the first quarter of 2012 (the most recent data available) puts the total number of Iranian tourists at roughly 15,000, a sizable drop over the same period last year. Travel agents and Iran watchers in Yerevan also see a downward trend.
“There are almost no tourists [from Iran] right now,” said Kamelia Gharakhanian of the Tatev travel agency specializing in incoming tourism from Iran. “Flights [from Tehran] are still practically full but visitors are mostly not tourists.”
Gharakhanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that most of the Iranians currently using her firm’s services are business travelers and students. Many others come to Yerevan to apply for a U.S. visa or to take international English language tests, she said.
Both the travel agent and Rudik Yaralian, an Iranian studies expert, primarily attributed the decreased tourist inflow to a sharp weakening of Iran’s national currency, the rial. The currency has reportedly lost 80 percent of its value since the end of 2011. Its depreciation is the result of severe international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic due to its controversial nuclear program.
“Virtually all goods have become more expensive in Iran,” Yaralian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Many of those Iranians who were previously able to meet their basically needs with average wages are now grappling with major difficulties.”
“As for wealthy Iranians, they do not prefer Armenia as a travel destination,” Gharakhanian said for her part.