On the far shore of Lake Sevan, a crew prepares a small sailing rig as one shouts instructions in German. A grey curly-haired gentleman, dressed in a pair of cropped chinos and sporting weathered boat shoes, nonchalantly strolls down the beach to greet them. Samvel, as he introduces himself, was once the head coach of Armenia’s Olympic sailing team. Now, he owns Armenian Camp, a tastefully modest resort consisting of several unassuming cottages along an untouched stretch of shore and, in Samvel’s words “the largest collection of watercraft on Lake Sevan.”
Occasionally, he still teaches sailing. Today’s lesson: how to properly deploy a mainsail. His students, mainly consisting of staff from the German and Swiss embassies, hope to earn their sailing certificates by the end of the summer.
Since opening Armenian Camp in 2012, occupancy at the resort has grown exponentially each year, with guests mostly coming from abroad and staying in one or two week stretches. However, with the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic forcing the shuttering of international borders, sources of outside tourism have abruptly dried up. Samvel says the resort continues to book guests, but their provenance and lengths of stay have changed. While the beach is virtually deserted on any given weekday, it quickly fills up on Friday evenings as Yerevantsis and Armenia’s few remaining expats flock to the resort fleeing the summer heat in the capital.
Upon announcing the extension of travel restrictions into mid-August, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan acknowledged the disappointment among Armenia’s would-be jet-set tourists and tour operators catering to incoming visitors, suggesting instead that they use the opportunity to “explore their own country.” Armenians seem to have taken that advice to heart. The State Tourism board reports that hotel occupancy rates across the country have risen dramatically following the strict lockdown period that ended in early May.
But for the Armenian tourism industry, which had been gearing up to accommodate what had been expected to be a record-breaking year until the pandemic hit, hastily reorienting towards the domestic market may be easier said than done. They must contend with the markedly different expectations, tastes and spending habits of local holidaymakers. If an international tourist could be expected to spend on average $880 on a single trip to Armenia, a domestic tourist might spend less than half that amount. But the economic ripple effect emanating from such a spending discrepancy is further amplified by different habits. Aside from the shorter stays—as most vacationers still work during the week—Armenians’ preference for all-inclusive resorts generates an uneven spending distribution, often favoring large hotel chains. Family-run bed and breakfasts, traditionally reliant on the patronage of foreign ‘cultural tourists’ looking for authentic experiences, have seen a marked decline in bookings this year.
But those whose livelihoods are more indirectly tied to the tourism industry have felt the impact as well. Drivers, artisans, restaurateurs and vacation rental operators whose careers sprung up to cater to an ever-growing inflow of foreign tourists cannot easily pivot their business models, as domestic vacationers typically own their own cars and have little need for “Armenia” fridge magnets.
But the presence of tents lining the shore at Samvel’s establishment suggests that the appeal of the often over-priced all-inclusive resort vacation model isn’t shared by all. Indeed, taking the Prime Minister’s suggestion to heart, a number of organizations have emerged in the hopes of spreading interest in outdoor recreation for these rejects of an increasingly urbanized society.
Bivouacking down the coast from where Samvel is teaching sailing is Artag Kosian. As he unloads camping gear from his X-Terra, the executive director of HIKEArmenia says that his organization had been preparing for a flood of international bookings for hiking expeditions this summer, which were virtually all cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The HIKEArmenia team had always focused a good part of our attention towards local tourism and promoting the hiking culture within Armenia,” explains Kosian, “[Due to the pandemic] there is this global trend this summer of exploring your own backyard, and we wanted to do our part in helping Armenians do so.”
Kosian and his team reoriented much of HIKEArmenia’s social media outreach and information resources toward local Armenians, many of whom were trying their hand at hiking for the first time. They launched Armenian versions of their site as well as their trail-finding app. Their videos now include Armenian and Russian subtitles. One of their more creative initiatives was to team up with local actress/influencer Ani Khachikyan for ‘Return to Nature,’ a viral video calling on Armenians to explore their backcountry.
And it seems to be working. Their site has been viewed by some 4,000 unique visitors from Armenia in the past 90 days, while the hiking app has seen a 100-percent increase in downloads over the same period—virtually all from Armenia.
Armenians are discovering several other outdoor activities this summer as well. Local social media is full of pictures of young Armenians trying their hand at white river rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, rock climbing, mountain biking and camping. Entire clubs have also formed around more demanding recreational activities such as offroading and overlanding.
Ana Yan is part of this new generation of young Armenians blazing the trail of rediscovering the Armenian backcountry. Having returned from a stint in Sri Lanka, she and some friends took up hiking and camping before founding Tripsters, an adventure club providing advice and professional instructors to other millennials taking their first steps into the outdoors. For Yan, the global pandemic’s silver lining comes in the form of greater interest in Armenia’s nature from the general public. She pointed out that a tech worker, which she describes as fitting a common city-dweller archetype, brought his six year-old son during one of their most recent excursions. “We are very happy to see people roaming around and discovering new places,” she says. “With people spending so much time indoors during the lockdown, returning to nature isn’t just trendy, but a necessity.”
While the lockdown may have provided a unique opportunity for Armenians to rediscover their surroundings, most are eagerly looking forward to sharing Armenia’s trailheads and campsites with international guests next season.