AraraTour Company together with the journalist Lia Khojoyan arranged an interview with the US Consul in Armenia Frank Tu and the director of USAID Karen Hilliard. The aim of the conversation was to find out how the tourists from the United States feel in Armenia, if they have any problems during their stay and how to solve these problems. During the conversation, everyone shared the opinion about the tourism industry in Armenia, noting that the country has a great potential for further large-scale tourism development.
Answers from Consul Frank Tu:
-How do Americans assess safety in Armenia and do they feel safe here?
-Americans can learn about the conditions of any foreign country through a variety of websites including Travel.State.Gov, a website maintained by the U.S. Department of State that provides information on every country in the world, including Armenia. This country information is drafted annually by my office and when doing so, we consult our colleagues at the Embassy, we gather publicly available information from the Armenian authorities, and we include any cases or incidents that we are personally aware of. In terms of crime, I am happy to report that we inform Americans that there is a relatively low number of crimes in Armenia.
–What kind of complaints do you get from them?
-Several U.S. investors have reported involvement in property ownership disputes, and have had to seek legal recourse through long, and often unsuccessful, court proceedings.
-How does the visa exemption influence the flow of tourists?
-I am confident that the added convenience will convince many tourists to visit Armenia. The arrangement was only implemented on Jan. 1, 2015 so we do not have the visitor data from the Armenian government to confirm it yet.
-In which cases and for what issues do Americans apply to the Embassy? How is the procedure done and does it have red-tape?
-Most American tourists actually travel in and out of Armenia with no issues. Most of the Americans who come to the Embassy are Armenian-Americans residing in Armenia and they typically come to the Embassy to renew their American passports. The passport renewal process is fairly simple – the American schedules an appointment with the American Citizens Services unit online, and at the time of the appointment, the American submits a passport form, passport photos, and his/her current passport. Within 14 working days, the new passport arrives at the Embassy where the American can come pick it up. Of course, the American gets to keep the old passport during the processing. After the new passport arrives, we invalidate the previous passport but the American still gets to keep it as identification, plus it makes a good keepsake. Many Americans in Armenia also ask us how to help their family members immigrate to the U.S. The U.S. immigration process is transparent and straight-forward. All of the steps are outlined clearly at travel.state.gov.
Answers from USAID Armenia Mission Director Karen Hilliard:
-What kind of gaps are there in Armenia that can be filled so it will be more attractive for Americans to visit?
-Tourism development is a long term endeavor that requires public and private sector commitment and collaboration. Armenia’s tourism industry has shown significant growth in the past 10 years, and has contributed around 5% of GDP. However, Armenia’s current market is relatively narrow. Its tourism product is based on the country’s unique cultural heritage, deep traditions as the first Christian nation, numerous medieval churches, monasteries and fortresses, and spectacular scenery (which is fascinating for adventure travelers and hikers). The global market continues to grow and seek out new destinations that offer unique tourism products and experiences. With so many choices available in the world, foreign visitors and investors must understand why they would choose to visit, invest, work or live in Armenia rather than in other locations in the world. And so to become a competitive and attractive destination in the global market, Armenia would have to address some critical challenges, such as limited variety of attractions, relatively high airfare costs and limited travel options to Armenia, poor road conditions, limited English spoken outside of Yerevan, and shortage of quality and affordable hotels. Armenia needs to present itself as a country that offers stable and safe conditions for tourists, entrepreneurs and investments. A focus on improving customer care, increasing visitor services and developing infrastructure around key cultural and religious attractions would also strengthen Armenia’s position as an attractive destination.
– Is Armenia perceived positively as a tourism destination?
-A country’s image as a tourism destination is perceived through the products, services and experiences that the country offers to its visitors. I think Armenia does have a lot to offer to its visitors, including its rich culture, history, and the delicious food. For nearly fifteen years we have supported the Armenian tourism sector to improve the quality of hospitality services, expand country marketing and develop the skills of tourism industry staff. As a result of USAID assistance, for instance, Armenia adopted an Open Skies policy and has begun to renegotiate its bilateral aviation agreements with multiple countries. This reform resulted in a 30% increase in flights to and from Armenia in 2014, paving the way for more trade, tourism and investment. We have most recently supported the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia to create a brand for Armenia that will successfully differentiate the country in the global setting. A strong brand and creative presentation will help communicate Armenia’s value and distinguish the country among its competitors.
– If you were not an Embassy employee, would Armenia be attractive tourism destination?
I have always been fascinated by ancient history and archeology, so for me Armenia would be an attractive destination. The issue, of course, is getting here. Presently, the air connections to Europe and the US are lacking. With the advent of the Open Skies policy, hopefully this will change and travel to and from Armenia will become more affordable and less time consuming. In addition, I believe that Armenia needs to more actively promote itself as a unique tourist destination. After living here for almost three years, I know quite well what the country has to offer but the average American does not.
-Will the EEC membership of Armenia influence the tourism market?
I don’t see why it should. The Armenian government has made it very clear that the country continues to be interested in strengthening economic and cultural ties with the West. Tourism is no different.
–Is it easy to communicate with Armenian citizens? Is it easy to travel within Armenia, and how much is Armenia’s infrastructure developed for tourism?
I have devoted a lot of time to studying Armenian so for me communication has become easier over time. In addition, in Yerevan and other larger cities, the younger generation often speaks some English. For the average tourist who does not speak Armenian or Russian, however, communicating with people outside of urban areas is a real challenge. Where tourism is concerned, this can be ameliorated by developing tourism products such as all-inclusive packages and tours led by guides who speak English or other foreign languages. Practical things like including English descriptions of all the items in the National Museum and other sites as well as creating tri-lingual menus in restaurants would go a long way to making Armenia’s unique culture, history and cuisine accessible to foreigners.
As for the logistics of travel, things are improving. The construction of major highways and the improvement of more major roads would go a long way toward fostering tourism. In truth, however, people are prepared to travel on bad roads and endure a little inconvenience if there is something interesting or enjoyable to see at the end of the road. So developing the tourist sites themselves is really important. Another important thing is to create more public conveniences, such as rest stops and public restrooms to make travel more comfortable.
-Which regions and sights are especially interesting?
-I have a particular fondness for southern Armenia. I find the sites along the southern road such as Areni Cave, Noravank, Uhktasar (near Sisian), Karahunj, Khndzoresk and Tatev absolutely fascinating. And the wild flowers in spring are unforgettable. That said, there are so many other amazing sites to see such as the old caravanserai in Selim pass. To the north, of course, one must visit the churches near Alaverdi and Akhtala. And the barbeque festival in Akhtala is not to be missed!