The Armenian hospitality is the visit card of the country for the tourists all around the world. UNDP Integrated Rural Tourism Development (IRTD) project launched in 2016, aims to turn this typical Armenian trait of character into an income generating opportunity, to boost the tourism in the rural areas of Armenia with all the benefits directed to the communities. The project is financed by the Russian Federation and implemented in close partnership with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructures of RA. Starting from 2016, 90 initiatives have been implemented in more than 60 villages all over Armenia. Dmitry Mariyasin, the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Armenia, talked with Regional Post about the key points of the project and about his personal bond with Armenia.

Interview : Margarit Mirzoyan    Photo : UNDP in Armenia


Mr. Mariyasin, why does Armenia need IRTD?

Right now, tourism in Armenia is booming. There’s 20 percent uptake in tourism every year. These are very encouraging figures, and we hope that Armenia will be the next big destination in the Transcaucasus and yet, a question remains, how much of this windfall of revenue remains in the country, specifically, in the rural areas. The way the tourism industry is structured, there are standardized projects, there are tour operators, and there’s a tendency for most of the funds to bypass the communities. So, our product is unique as it’s about creating a long term, sustainable link between the rural population and tourism. IRTD is probably the only tourism project in Armenia that is not about tourism but is about the communities, people and their incomes. We look at tourism from the viewpoint of reducing poverty in Armenia, making sure that people living in remote villages can have a dignified life, that the young people from these villages don’t leave the country and that there’s maximum output from tourism for the local population.

That’s why we understood that we must go not with the log frame of what we think would be good ideas for tourism, but listen to what people are ready to do and invest in those who take leadership. Also, we have to work very closely with the tourism industry and that’s a very unique feature of the project as it has established a network of 60 or more tour operators and every single product that we’ve designed that benefits the rural communities is actually created together with the tourism industry representatives.


You also work very closely with several government entities…

Yes, at least with four of them. Our main partner is the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructures, the State Tourism Committee under the Ministry of Economy, the Marzpetarans and the local communities. Each time we initiate something in a village, these are the four government stakeholders we work with. So, it’s not about tourism, it’s about local economic development.


Stone Lake Nature Park, Tavush Marz

Stone Lake is a human made lake, which is located on the slope of the village Hovk. Jirayr Meliksetyan had a dream to build a human made lake in Hovk and one day decided to realize his lifetime dream. It took him 10 years to achieve his goal. Today his son Mher is continuing his father’s legacy. He made Qari Lich a very attractive tourist destination, where people can camp, go fishing and taste wonderful food.


What are the results you want to see when the project ends?

Our goal is to have 50 or 60 sustainably managed rural tourism destinations in Armenia, completely new locations on the map that didn’t exist three years ago. Each point must be owned and led by the locals, it must leave most of the income in the village, become popular among the tour operators and perceived by the government as a great initiative they want to invest in more. So, we want every single point on the map to be on the top wish list for the tour operators in Armenia. Our vision is to have tourism as a part of other local economic development projects that we’re implementing today or will launch in the future. We really see the potential of linking, for example, agriculture and tourism, environmental protection and tourism, etc. We’d like to view tourism as a component of many other important industries.


What was the feedback of people from local communities to the already ongoing projects?

Look, whenever I go to visit the project sites, I see everybody smile, because you know, the “big boss is coming”, but I believe that these smiles are sincere as I can see that we’ve really changed their lives. We take before and after photos at each project sight, and they really speak for themselves. Either there’s been nothing before, which was the case for supporting the rafting initiative on the River Debed, in Lori, or there was something, which wasn’t attractive to the tourists or didn’t allow to generate enough revenue. So, I think when they say “thank you” to the UNDP, to the Russian Federation, they are sincere. I also can see the “Oh, I can do this” effect. They think, “My neighbor did it, I also can do it and I want to be successful, too.” Eventually, we do everything via co-financing from the community and people. We don’t just bring humanitarian aid but discus and design it with them, and they co-finance it. When people put their own money into something, usually, it means they need it, because otherwise they might choose to invest their resources into something else.


What about the Gastro Yards concept? How did those ideas get generated and where can the tourists find and experience it?

The concept is simple, beautiful and, I think, very needed in Armenia. Being a foreigner myself, while traveling around the country I very often find myself wishing to have some Armenian home food which is amazing. But the options available to you in the rural areas are usually quite limited. There are a few well-known restaurants, which are certainly nice and worth checking out, but if you wish something different or cozier or special and if you want some experience, it’s not there. I like mentioning the example of our newly opened Gastro Yard in Poqr Vedi, which is right next to the Khor Virap. It turns out that Poqr Vedi has the top tourism destination next to it, whereas it doesn’t really benefit from it. So, the idea is very simple; to find places that are convenient for people to stop, where they can be greeted by an Armenian family and have lunch or dinner in a beautiful setting – in a courtyard with a view, and most importantly taste some excellent Armenian food and wine, but made in a way that would feel comfortable for a foreign tourist. There must be a toilet, the quality of the food must be on top, and the host must be able to accommodate both big and small groups. That’s the concept.


Yeganyan's Gastro Yard, Ashtarak, Aragatsotn Marz

Yeganyan's Gastro Yard is a unique authentically designed touristic destination established in 1930th. Here you can enjoy Armenian home-made Wine, traditional food and have a personal guide who will tell you everything you are curious to know.


How many Yards are there going to be?

We’ve already launched four Gastro Yards and now we’ve started the competition for 26 more. There will be a total of 30 Gastro Yards, which means that as you travel around Armenia, you can always choose to eat in a family house and pay for the dinner, knowing that this money will benefit the community. You need to book in advance, because if you show up at someone’s door with 5 people, they might not be ready to receive you. So, it’s not a restaurant and we’re not competing with them. This is a new niche for people that are not in restaurant business, but who would just like to receive guests. There will be a centralized website, where you can find all this information, indicating which Gastro Yard offers which service. For example, in Poqr Vedi, people can do some painting and have a dolma master-class. In Areni, the guest can learn how to make Armenian barbeque and lavash and see how the wine is being made. So, in each location there will be something special. I know that the one in Ashtarak is completely booked until the end of June. Tour operators love this product, because they always want to add something special. When the tourists come to Armenia, and the tour manager brings them to a restaurant where ten other buses are waiting, the visitors don’t feel them special, but when they appear in somebody’s family house, they do. You are the only one there, as if you’re visiting friends and it feels very special and it costs less. So, this is a good deal for tourists, operators and for the families.


You mentioned a competition. So, to have their own Gastro Yard, the families need to apply for it?

Yes, exactly. According to Arman Valesyan, the manager of our tourism programs, for 26 spots we’ve already received 130 applications. The criteria are quite strict, for example, the applicant should have lived in the community for at least 3 years, be already operating something like a home restaurant or bed & breakfast, or have all the necessary conditions to run something like that even if in need of renovation, design or business planning support. In some cases, all we need to do is help them organize the business aspect, but in some cases, the whole space is in need of extensive renovation.


We know that very soon new community-based hotels will be ready. How was the idea generated and what are the benefits of such hotels?

Again, we’re not competing with the existing accommodations but rather creating a new niche of hotels that are located at remote spots which are too far or hard to reach. Gastro Yards are already located next to existing tourism destinations, and we are deepening the impact of tourism flow on the community, so that more income can stay in the community if the tourists go there. As to community hotels, we tried to bring completely new destinations, such as Ditavan or Chinchin in Tavush marz, or Kalavan in Gegharkunik marz. They are hard to get to and the roads are quite bad, but because of that these locations are not very crowded, and you can enjoy pristine nature. I hope you will find time to visit for example Chinchin, and if you do, you will never forget this place.

We want the hotels to be owned by the community, but we understand that the communities are unable to manage them, because managing a hotel is a professional business. We are creating a model, where the community owns the hotel, but hires a professional company to run it and the revenue is shared. In each case we’re renovating an existing building, so we’re not building new structures, we’re taking old, usually historical buildings, reinforcing them, because the tourists usually appreciate a touch of history, not just a newly constructed building. In Ditavan, we are fully renovating the building; it will have a beautiful yard, a reception and a cafe. In Chinchin we’re renovating the central spot, where there’s a reception, a cafe, an exhibition and concert space, but the actual hotel rooms will be either at residents’ houses or there will be newly constructed small houses. So, people will stay in decentralized hotels, but come to the center for breakfast. The hotels will be quite small, so we hope they will be booked out for the entire season. When saying we, we mean the industry, the government and other stakeholders.


Mikayelyan Cheese Cellar, Artsvakar, Gegharqunik Marz

Mikayelyan Family Farm was established in 2012 in Artsvakar district, Gegharkunik province. Farm is engaged in livestock breeding, milk production, milk processing, and particularly in cheese production. They produce wine-cheese, cognac-cheese, horats (which is a typical Armenian cheese) and parmesan-type, hard texture cheese. The farm has a spacious and comfortable space.


Various types of initiatives are implemented in all parts of Armenia. Why do you think that this format suits the Armenian reality best, namely, the community hotels, Gastro Yards and other initiatives within the project?

It works because of the people. Armenians are very entrepreneurial, there are a lot of good ideas. What often lacks is the infrastructure to support these ideas, getting from idea to a business project, but once you have enough number of people to generate an actual functioning business out of the good idea, then there’s the snowball effect. It also works because, in my view, Armenia is still undiscovered as a tourism destination, a so-called hidden gem. It really must be presented to the world and it has a huge potential to grow tourism which is sustainable, benefiting the communities, responsible for the environment and built on the premise of enjoying its nature, history, traditions while being respectful towards them. Plus, I think that it works in Armenia, because of the very strong leadership of the government. They are really focused on promoting tourism and we feel great support. We think this is a great momentum for the tourism to develop but our focus remains the same – how to create income for the rural population so they can live with dignity, can invest their income into the education of their children, approve healthcare and living conditions.


In your opinion, what are the most unique tourism services Armenia can offer?

I qualify Armenia as the most ancient startup nation in the world, startup from the point of view of doing new things. The entrepreneurial spirit, the ability of Armenians to reshape what is around them is amazing and it needs to be nurtured. I myself was grown up in a big city and, like many other tourists, often look for quiet spaces that are not contaminated, places where you can enjoy simple pleasures. Every nation is hospitable, but in Armenia there’s no overdrive of hospitality, you are not being overly praised. Too much can be artificial, in Armenia it’s natural and that’s what matters. Armenia has very pristine and cozy locations, it has a potential of positioning itself as a green destination, and it really has a mesmerizing nature spots, combined with ancient churches, tasty food and traditions that still need to be discovered. For example, the Lori region has an interesting tradition of storytelling with some native music and we created the FairyTale House that brings back the tradition, and most importantly, we talked to local kids to relearn the songs and tales that were lost in the village, and now they’ve become the carriers of these traditions.


Fairy Tale House, v. Pambak, Lori Marz

It’s a real place out of space and time: a real fairy tale house. Here you can try Armenian traditional dishes and enjoy folk concerts. Here guests can enjoy Armenian authentic food and beverage, folk concerts and puppet shows.


What are your favorite spots in Armenia that you think every traveller should visit too?

There’s a cliff in Chinchin, I can totally imagine spending the whole afternoon there with friends, especially if I know I can stay in a decentralized hotel there. Just driving in the heels of Tavush is amazing, when you exit the tunnel and suddenly find yourself in a “Caucasian Switzerland”. Halidzor village (Syunik Marz) with its hotel made of “bochkas” [barrels – ed.]. I always make sure choosing the “bochka” looking up from the cliff. Of the historical cultural sights, my favorite is Noravank (Vayots Dzor Marz). I think it’s stunningly beautiful… All these places will remain in my memory. And I hope many others can be there too. Armenia is easy to reach, once you’ve figured out how to find a cheap ticket. I think the Aviation Committee is working on this. Once this is fixed, a flow of tourists is sure to come to the country. A lot of Russian tourists visit the country, because it’s affordable, there’s no need for a visa, but after they arrive, you must be able to offer them something which will catch their attention. For the first visit it’s easy, even for the second one it may be easy, but for them to come for the third time, you need to offer them something special.