A visit to Kond with LikeLocal

Tourism to Armenia reached an all-time high of 2.3 million visitors in 2023, as more people from around the world continue to discover this hidden gem. While group bus trips will always be an easy and efficient way to see the country’s sights, an increasing number of travelers are looking for ways to connect more deeply with the places they visit. Enter the latest travel trend, known as experiential or immersion travel, which creates meaningful engagement between tourists and their destination through interactions with locals and cultural activities. Catering to these adventurous travelers is an Armenian company LikeLocal.io, which offers experiences not just in Armenia but Vietnam and Cambodia as well, with more countries coming soon. 

Co-founder and CEO Gevorg Babayan grew up in a mountain village during Armenia’s cold and dark days of the 1990s, hearing tales from his uncle who worked on a cruise ship of far off places he could only imagine. He developed a fascination with seeing the world, and as an adult got into the travel industry, working at Yerevan’s first hostel Envoy Hostel and developing its spin-off Envoy Tours. In 2008, Envoy Tours had an idea – rather than take its guests to restaurants, guests could have lunch at the homes of ordinary people, starting with Babayan’s own family in Byurakan village. At first, Babayan was confused to discover how, despite all the wonderful sightseeing spots he’d take them to, the tourists would routinely mention the family lunch as the highlight of their day. “Then I understood that authenticity is a power that I can’t fight against,” Babayan told the Weekly.

Babayan expanded on this principle and, fast forward to 2022, he rolled out LikeLocal after a two-year delay due to COVID-19. Travelers can select from numerous experiences with locals across Armenia, including Arus, an artist who makes art out of the food she serves; Arman, a simple man living in the village of Teghut known for its natural beauty; and the family of Maran, who were displaced from Artsakh and now reside in Dilijan. While sharing a meal is a common activity to connect over, there are numerous other possibilities, such as tending a village garden, art therapy and horseback riding, along with personal enrichment activities like lessons in traditional cooking and crochet. The Armenian Weekly went along on one of LikeLocal’s immersions to experience it for ourselves. 

The Avetisyan family

The Avetisyan family has deep roots in one of Yerevan’s most historic neighborhoods, Kond. It’s a place like no other, right in the city center but with a village atmosphere that makes it feel like a world away. The centerpiece of the visit is their home itself, a structure over 200 years old built in the Persian style from when the area was ruled by Qajar Iran. Right next door are the remains of the district’s mosque and other similarly old buildings; you can’t find a historic cluster like this anymore anywhere in Yerevan. Visitors are taken into the basement to see the building’s foundations, with stones reminiscent of those found in medieval churches, leaving the family to believe the building was Armenian prior to the Persian era. Inside the house, the modern drywall hides centuries-old clay walls, which due to their great thickness keep the building cool in the summer and warm in the winter. 

Just as interesting as the structure are the people who live inside it, multi-generational residents of Kond like many of their neighbors. The father Armen’s family moved from Van about 130 years ago, while the mother Lusine’s ancestors were Genocide refugees from Kars. Their son Nikolay is a lead actor at Yerevan’s Dramatic Theater. He can regale you with his fateful encounters with the legendary actor Sos Sargsyan, who encouraged him to take the stage. His wife Karina is a journalist for a major local outlet, and as she speaks English, often acts as translator between the family and their foreign guests. They’ve been with LikeLocal for the past year, but have been welcoming tourists who find their way to Kond for almost a decade. Their homemade gata was always a main draw, which led them to open a cafe in their yard called ‘Kondi Hyatt’. While they all have other jobs, the family members always make sure someone is home to run the cafe and consider hosting guests to be an enjoyable hobby. Not surprisingly, Russians are their biggest demographic, as they make up almost half of Armenia’s total tourists. Italians and Germans come next, as well as quite a few Australians, as LikeLocal is popular with them. Indicative of Armenia’s expanding tourist profile, they’ve also had guests from Japan and China. 

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In their living room, the family laid out a table in front of their Christmas tree with food full of personal touches. The dolma leaves came from their mulberry tree outside, the delicious pork came from a friend’s farm, the wine was homemade, and the pasuts (cabbage) dolma was hand-rolled by Lusine’s mother. The family is also open to requests if guests have something special in mind, such as the famous Armenian khorovadz (roast meat). They enjoy meeting people from other countries, but even more important is the chance it provides them to introduce foreigners to Armenia. “We love telling others about our culture, because Armenia needs to be advertised,” Nikolay said. “We want to spread the word about our culture, share this historical place with them and protect it.”

Despite Kond’s fascinating history and rustic charm, the fact it even still exists is a wonder of its own. According to Karina, “The government wants to destroy Kond, but people live here and love this place. That’s why they can’t do anything. The people are holding it together.” With Yerevan property valuations through the roof, Kond’s proximity to the heart of the city makes it an extremely lucrative place to build. This situation has replayed itself many times in Yerevan, from the evictions in the early 2000s to build Northern Avenue to the recent controversy over the redevelopment of the 19th-century Firdusi neighborhood. In fact, according to Armen, successive governments going back to Soviet times have had their eye on destroying Kond, and residents had to rely on communal toilets and a lack of running water until the mid-2000s. Nobody bothered to create the infrastructure, as the intention was to knock it all down anyway, Armen said. 

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Offers are made regularly to residents to sell their homes, which can be enticing, as many of the residents are impoverished. Yet they are also very wary, as they’ve seen others get taken advantage of in the past. Armen figures the developers will eventually get their way, but Karina has hope: “I think some will remain like us who don’t want to sell, and we will do everything to protect this place. While people in other places of Armenia are already becoming strangers to each other, Kond is a place where everybody still knows each other and helps each other out. Its people are also getting better educated, more cultural and are producing talented people.” 

While some of the development discussions have shifted to making Kond a tourist center, its residents don’t buy it. “Tourists want to see Kond as it is now, not some new artificial one, and to get to know the people who live here. Everybody here has their own story to tell,” said Karina. This brings us back to the very reason Babayan created LikeLocal in the first place. Babayan said, “Travelers are tired of regular tourist traps, the displays the travel industry creates for everyone. They showcase the best of the best, but it’s not the reality. It’s not the real life of the people of that country. LikeLocal brings needed diversity to the field in Armenia and gives other options and choices to travelers. And most of all, we open the locals’ doors to travelers while bringing the world to the locals, and that is big!” 

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has worked in Armenia as the English language editor at CivilNet and as a project associate for USAID programs. More recently he served as one of the organizers of the World Congress on Information Technology 2019 Yerevan. He is also a historian who researches and brings to light the long and rich history of Philadelphia's Armenian community.
Paul Vartan Sookiasian

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