Thousands of Iranian tourists have arrived in Armenia at the start of annual celebrations of Nowruz, the ancient Persian New Year that has long been their country’s most popular and longest holiday.
For the past several years, Armenia has been a major destination for Iranians marking the two-week holiday abroad. Their influx is visibly much stronger this time around.
Arlen Davudian, whose Yerevan-based Tatev Tour travel agency specializes in Iran, estimated on Monday that the number of holidaymakers from Iran, which usually exceeded 15,000 during previous Nowruz celebrations, has tripled this year.
“There are several reasons for that,” Davudian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The first and foremost is the deteriorating security situation in Turkey.”
Hordes of such tourists could be seen strolling in the streets of central Yerevan and taking pictures as Nowruz celebrations in Iran began on Sunday. Many of them looked forward to not only visiting Armenian tourist attractions but also going to live concerts by Iranian pop singers banned in the Islamic Republic. Younger visitors will also flock to Yerevan night clubs rented by Iranian entertainers for the Nowruz period.
“People and the city are very good,” one Iranian man told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) “There will also be a lot of concerts. We come here for the concerts as well.”
“I’m here for a third time and I enjoy it,” he said, adding that he and his wife will proceed to neighboring Georgia later this week.
“A travel firm [in Iran] offered Dubai and Armenia to us,” said an Iranian woman. “We chose Armenia. People are nice here.”
According to Roobik Monasian, a Yerevan-based correspondent for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian-language service, the names of many popular sites in the Armenian capital already have unofficial Iranian equivalents.
“For example, they call the Cascade (a massive terrace-like structure on a hillside overlooking the city center) ‘a thousand steps,’” Monasian explained. “Yesterday I heard them calling Northern Avenue (Yerevan’s main pedestrian street) ‘the French street.’ They likened it to the Champs Elysees.”
In a city that was for centuries part of the Persian Empire, very few restaurants, cafes and shops provide Persian-language information or make special commercial offers to the Iranian visitors.
“For a period of just a few days, that would be too much work,” said Yervand Papazian, the manager of a Northern Avenue café. “You can’t just translate the menu [to Persian.] You also have to adapt it [to Iranian tastes.]”
“It’s hard to deal with such customers because 90 percent of them don’t speak English or Russian while we don’t speak Persian,” Papazian said. “So we try to communicate with hand gestures.”
There are many Persian-language signs at nearby Republic Square where tour operators and individual taxi owners advertise day trips to ancient Armenian monuments outside Yerevan. “We mainly offer to show them our churches,” said one taxi driver, Zhora. He claimed to have learned basic Persian from his customers.
Some Iranians arrive in Armenia in their own cars. “Our traffic police hassle them too much,” complained Aida, an Armenian tour guide.
Davudian, the travel agency owner, said, for his part, that Armenia could have attracted a much larger number of Iranians and resulting economic benefits for its tourism industry had the Armenian government done more to promote the country in Iran. “Ignoring such a huge tourism market would be naïve, to say the least,” he said.
According to Armenian government data, the number of Iranians visiting Armenia rose by 24 percent to 144,000 last year.