They estimate that the real number of such visitors may be ten times smaller than the one reported by the National Statistical Service (NSS) and cited by the Armenian government.
The official statistics show that as many 575,000 tourists visited Armenia from abroad last year. The government said earlier this year that the figure will surpass 620,000 in 2010.
“Our data for the first quarter of this year gives us reason to believe that we will have a growth of up to 8 percent this year,” Ara Petrosian, a deputy minister of economy dealing with tourism, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service this week.
“Even in the conditions of economic crisis, we had growth last year because we managed to give new impetus to regional tourism,” he said. “There was a drastic increase in visits from Iran.”
Travel experts dismiss the tourist data as grossly inflated, however. They say the official figures take account of all individuals entering the country, including scores of Armenians working abroad and spending holidays in their homeland.
Ara Vartanian, the chairman of the Armenian Trade and Industry Chamber, thinks that the number of foreigners staying in Armenian hotels is a far more objective indicator of the tourist influx into the country. The NSS data show that there were only 65,000 such visitors in 2009.
“They make up only about 10 percent [of all visitors,]” Vartanian stressed, speaking to RFE/RL. “There is another very interesting point [in the official statistics.] They show that the rest of the visitors stayed in relatives’ homes or rented apartments. I wonder how [the authorities] counted them.”
Davit Khachiyan, the tourism director at the Levon Travel operator, likewise contended that the real number of tourists is “much lower than the figures cited by the government.” In his words, the vast majority of tourists travel to Armenia in groups and their annual number “doesn’t exceed 50,000.”
Arkady Sahakian, who runs another Yerevan-based travel agency, suggested another method of gauging external tourism: the number of visas issued by Armenian consulates and other immigration services. It stood at 137,000 in 2009. Many of the visa recipients were presumably business travelers.
“It’s probably more beneficial for [government officials,] in terms of showing that they are doing a good job, to claim that 600,000 tourists visit Armenia,” Sahakian told RFE/RL, commenting on the serious discrepancy between the government figures and unofficial estimates.
Travel agents also question the effectiveness of government measures to spur the development of the local tourism industry, which the Armenian authorities declared a top economic priority a decade ago. They say, in particular, that foreigners show little interests in three Armenian resort towns that received an official status of “tourism centers” last year. They say mountain scenery and ancient churches remain Armenia’s main tourist attractions.
The tour operators also argue that the cost of air travel to and accommodation in Armenia is still disproportionately high by international standards. “Armenia’s tourism industry mainly targets well-heeled foreigners,” acknowledged Petrosian.
“I think it’s a cheap country in terms of food and transportation, but accommodation is quite expensive, especially in comparison to Turkey and Georgia,” said a young man from Portugal visiting Armenia.
For Annette, a group visitor from Bordeaux, France who has already spend several days in the country, the cost is worth the result. “Hotel prices are not that important to us,” she told RFE/RL. “All we need is comfortable and clean rooms, which is what we have received here.”