Armenia’s festivals have a lot to offer both to locals and tourists
Arts & Culture

Armenia’s festivals have a lot to offer both to locals and tourists

Lucineh Kassarjian

During few last years dozens of different festivals - musical, food, wine and many more - appeared in Armenia. It became a kind of a trend to celebrate that way the best that the country has. In 2017 FestivAr Association of Armenian Festivals was founded by a group of festival organizers to coordinate, promote, and support the sustainable development of sustainable festivals in Armenia. Today, FestivAr’s 19 members are responsible for 26 festivals across the country. Regional Post talked to Association’s Executive Director Lucineh Kassarjian about the importance of these festivals both for locals and tourists.

Interview: Arshak Tovmasyan
Photo Credits: Hrant Sahakyan, My Armenia Program

FestivAr Association's Executive Director Lucineh Kassarjian
FestivAr Association's Executive Director Lucineh Kassarjian

 

Wine festival, Dolma festival, Gata festival... It seems like a new trend to have festivals on every national thing we have.  Where do these all come from?

For centuries, festivals have been an integral part of human civilization and celebration around the globe. The trends you’re seeing in Armenia are global - in the last 30 years the number of festivals worldwide has increased dramatically. Festivals, especially those with a cultural or religious purpose, are increasingly seen as a way to bring people together from various socioeconomic, geographic, ideological and religious backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, they exude a sense of fun and relaxation, offering time for socializing with friends and family - so direly needed in this age of the “rat race” and what seems to be increasing scarcity of family time.

Festivals play a pivotal role in bringing together both local and visiting audiences, creating new opportunities both for the tourism sector and cultural exchange. Of course, with the new trends and marketing capacities, a large number of artificially-designed festivals has been created, which by no means minimizes the significance of celebrations, but instead enriches the experience around a specific regional fete or a dish uniquely significant for the location or a country in general. I see no harm in, for example, in a beard festival (yes, it is a real thing, celebrated in a number of countries!), if it brings people together around joy, food, music, and most importantly, for accepting and embracing differences. By the way, it is estimated that there are about 200,000 festivals in Japan, so with our 40+ festivals we still have a long way to go!

Such festivals usually are made more for tourists than locals. Is that so in Armenia?

Traditionally festivals were organized around local traditions and celebrations. With the tremendous growth of social media, word has gone around about specific festivals, and visitors share their experiences, thus creating a “tourism niche” for others to make specific efforts to attend a uniquely-celebrated festival far from home, mostly to be exposed and enjoy the distinctively different cultural heritage on offer. For example, there is a growing trend worldwide to attend certain globally-recognized festivals, some of which are sold out within hours of their opening time. Some examples include Carnival in Brazil, Burning Man and Coachella in the US, Holi in India, Oktoberfest in Germany, Lantern and Dragonboat Festivals in China, and Sakura Matsui in Japan. While a handful of Armenian festivals like the Areni Wine Fest, Tolma Fest, and Yerevan Color Run have been internationally-recognized and are growing their attendee numbers, they are still largely a local affair.

 

Armenian lavash

 

What do these festival tend to show to foreigners and to locals?

Whether you are into enjoying regional specialties, century-old traditions, arts and crafts, cuisine or an adventurous lifestyle, Armenia’s festivals have a lot to offer both locals and tourists. Each festival is unique, presenting a niche – for example, you surely have your favorite tolma recipe, but at the Tolma Festival you can taste both traditional tolma and completely new concoctions reviving forgotten and rare recipes. Yerevan Wine Days brings the spirit of spring, the buzz of Armenia’s burgeoning wine sector and sense of urban community on wine-infused Saryan street. Visitors can try an array of delectable street food and various libations and listen to live jazz and DJs entertaining throughout the two days of the event. One of the most prominent festivals, Areni Wine Fest, already almost a decade old, takes place during harvest season in one of the biggest wine regions of Armenia. Thousands of people attend each year, trying both local and internationally-acclaimed wines around the location where world’s oldest winery and wine production was discovered. HayBuis Festival transports you to Yenokavan, Tavush region, where you learn about Armenia’s local herbs and methodology of herb usage, including culinary and medical purposes, while enjoying herbal tea parties, exploring the biodiversity of the forest and participating in cooking classes. Here in forested hillsides of Yenokavan you can also enjoy Yell Extreme Fest, with activities such as paragliding, mountain biking, horseback riding and ziplining. The EcoTourism Festival brings eco-travelers together in Yeghegis, Vayots Dzor, to share yoga, mountain climbing, stargazing and camping, cycling and more.

There is no shortage of music festivals, discovering new names and enjoying already beloved groups, gathering around campfires to create new and showcase famous old songs. Sail of Hope International Bard Festival, Sevan International Music Festival, the new conceptual Urvakan Festival for urban studies, advanced music and visual arts, the already treasured Gutan Folk Songs and Dance Festival, and the new Armenia International Tango Festival, which is hosting a large number of international guests not only to enjoy milonga and other attractive events around Yerevan, but also takes the visitors around Armenia throughout their week-long stay to enjoy the nature, culture, food and hospitality of our country. Armenia’s sweets and fruits are also well-represented – with Raspberry Festival in Ashotavan, Honey and Berry Festival in Berd, the Mulberry Festival in Goris, and the newly introduced Blueberry Festival in Margahovit, to be complimentary with the Gata Festival, where, together with delicious pastries, folk dances and songs, world’s largest gata is baked. You can enjoy strolling around the beautiful Swan Lake in Yerevan, and participate in the Tea and Coffee Festival, sampling well-known and new brands, and enjoying coffee and herbal concoctions transporting you to the foothills of the mountains where these herbs come from, or participate in the exciting and vibrant Yerevan Color Festival. Want more traditional dishes, cooking and baking, dances and games and celebration of barbeque or potato harvest? Try Mets Pur in Gavar, or Khorovats Festival in Akhtala. Next February the Snowman Festival invites its guests to Jermuk to participate in creative snow art competition, build snowmen and other figures, and enjoy local folk music and dances around bonfires. And of course, a number of folk festivals, such as 1000 Years of Village Life, the Arts and Crafts Festival, Crossroad of Peace, and others, will show you how to celebrate and experience real cultural revival with Armenia’s oldest traditions.

Armenian carpet

 

Why did the festivals gather together into the FestivAr? What is the organization's main goal?

In 2017 a group of festival organizers came together and founded FestivAr - Association of Armenian Festivals, to coordinate, promote and support the sustainable development of festivals in Armenia. Within a year about 25 festivals across the country were under the FestivAr umbrella. Sharing resources, experiences, practices and solutions brings these members together to support the expansion of this exciting growing sector in cultural heritage and tourism. FestivAr was founded with the support of the My Armenia Program, a cultural heritage tourism program funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution. We are working closely with the UNDP and the State Tourism Agency to ensure that the essential assessment is done and necessary equipment is provided for shared use for all the member festivals. We are always in search of partners which have similar goals - rural development, revival of heritage, components of environmental and cultural education, and youth empowerment.  Our member-festival number is growing rapidly, and our goal is to have all the festivals conducted in the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh included in FestivAr.

Many of the festivals are already established and known, but still, what are the challenges? What should be improved?

Whether you ask an already reputable and well-known festival or a newly established one, the first and foremost concern is always funding. As mentioned above, most festivals, especially in Armenia, are not state funded (or very minimally funded), which by no means can ensure a sustainable growth of an annual event. There are grants which several festivals apply to, but mostly these are based on individual, corporate or in-kind donations. One thing is certain – there is no shortage of cultural or historic material to present. Here in Armenia we have an incredible wealth and abundance of traditions that can be shared and exposed to visitors for the next 100 years to come.  Other challenges, especially for festivals in the rural areas, can be lack of local infrastructure, dire road settings, absence or minimal public transportation, and insufficient infrastructure conditions (no electricity or water and sewage capacity). The problems are numerous and it will take ample time to improve these conditions, which is directly correlated with the economic development and improvement of rural and remote areas of Armenia. Having said this, it is very important to conduct an even larger number of festivals outside of urban areas, for the same exact reason, and to trigger decentralization and faster development of these milieus.

Armenian traditional dance

 

What are economic realities of those festivals? Is it possible for the festivals to be self-sustainable and even turn a profit?

Local festivals, in parallel to preserving cultural wealth, are also tools for promoting tourism and boosting local or regional economy. While the majority of the festivals are not yet sustainable, they are still happening on an annual basis, thanks to the dedication and tireless efforts of the organizers and volunteers. Having organized a festival myself, I can assure you that it’s like birthing a start-up and fighting for each donation and investment, with fierceness and determination. Each partner is a doorway to a better event. Each new unfunded idea will scare and excite equally. You want to have a festival that grows each year not only by number of participants and visitors, but by the level of progress and impact it has for locals and visitors alike. I am not yet aware of a festival that turns a profit – which means there is significant room for innovation and growth.

What is your favorite festival and why?

It would be unfair to handpick one. Each festival has its colors and tastes (no pun). We should celebrate life, every single day we live. It’s a gift we should cherish, like a beautiful smile that radiates energy, a sweet comment, a sincere thank-you, or a kind gesture. Festival days are like celebrating those gifts – kind of the icing on the cake.

What festival is missing?

Of course, there are other festivals happening in Armenia and Artsakh – we welcome them all, and are looking forward to seeing them join our FestivAr family too.  And of course, we welcome you all to enjoy the festivities with us!

Armenian festival