The number of foreign tourists visiting Armenia increased by more than 10 percent to 230,000 in the first half of this year, according to government data publicized on Tuesday.
The National Statistical Service (NSS) reported earlier that the country received some 575,000 visitors in the course of last year. The Armenian government expects the figure to surpass 620,000 in 2010.
The credibility of official tourism data has long been questioned by private tour operators and other tourism experts. They say it takes account of all individuals entering the country, including scores of Armenians working abroad and spending holidays in their homeland.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Ara Vartanian, the chairman of the Armenian Trade and Industry Chamber, said 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 shows that there were only 65,000 such visitors in 2009.
Tourism experts acknowledge that that the number of tourists coming to Armenia has been steadily rising. But many of them believe that the sector’s development is not fast enough.
“To say that there is strong growth [in the sector] is wrong,” Robert Minasian of the Armenian Union of Tour Operators told journalists on Tuesday. “The number and quality of [tourism] services does not change.”
“The growing number of visitors which we see each year is not enough,” agreed Pegor Papazian, director of the National Competitiveness Foundation. “We need to achieve faster growth.”
The Armenian authorities declared the development of the local tourism industry a top economic priority a decade ago. Just how effective government efforts to boost the sector have been is a matter of contention. Travel agencies argue that the cost of air travel to and accommodation in Armenia remains disproportionately high by international standards.
“One of the main reasons why prices in Armenia are high is a lack of supply,” said Papazian. “So if the number of well-heeled foreign tourists coming to Armenia drastically rises, both the number of hotels and competition among them will increase.”