Tourism in Lori: Will Vazgen Khachikyan’s New Project Succeed?
Recently a business plan entitled “Northern Gateway”, designed to spur the tourism sector in the Tumanyan district of Loris Marz, was circulated in the local town of Alaverdi. The plan, the brainchild of Vazgen Khachikyan, who heads the State Social Insurance Service, seeks to spur rural development as well as eco-tourism. It envisages the creation of new jobs and securing a market for local farm produce. “At first we wanted to turn Akhtala into a tourist center but later understood that Akhtala on its own wasn’t enough. According to the experts, there is great potential in Lori Marz and the plan seeks to solve two problems – first to utilize existing resources and second, to create jobs that will also spur the development of small and medium sized business,” states Mr. Khachikyan. Mr. Khachikyan is a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and enjoys the backing of the authorities. Taking this factor into account, many think that he will be able to actually carry out his scheme without hindrance. Mr. Khachikyan enjoys a definite degree of influence in his home town of Akhtala. During the last round of local elections, Vazgen Khachikyan’s brother, Hayk Khachikyan, was elected Akhtala mayor due to his efforts. This, of course, was a certain obligation on his part. Vazgen has a business in Alaverdi and has cemented close relations with Serob Ter-Petrosyan, a shareholder in Akhtala’s Metal Prince company. Vazgen is preparing to implement the “Northern Gateway” project with Ter-Petrosyan. During our conversation Vazgen Khachikyan stated that Serob Ter-Petrosyan had hastened the repairs on the Akhtala Aramyants house, regarded to be his property, with that aim in mind. Vallex Group Executive Director Valery Mejlumyan and Alaverdi Mayor Artur Nalbandyan also haven’t concealed their long-term plans to develop the tourist sector. However, it is well known that Serob Ter-Petrosyan and Valery Mejlumayan don’t see eye to eye and that it is hard to see these two businessmen cooperating on the proposed development plan. What’s interesting to note is that in this development plan there is no role intended for Lori Regional Governor Aram Kocharyan. Vazgen Khachikyan is also slated to be the project coordinator. “There’s a lot of work to be done. We have to inform the residents and work with the local authorities,” states Mr. Khachikyan. Whatever the intent of the author of this project, many in this district wracked with poverty and unemployment welcome the plan. Mr. Khachikyan views his project as doable and explains why – “It’s realistic due to the fact that today we see the representatives of the Republican Party executive and local officials are interested in seeing the development of tourism in Lori. When we asked about where financing for the project would come from, Mr. Khachikyan answered, “We have a minimum threshold. To evaluate the success of this project, in our estimation, some $5 million must be invested in the first three years. And this is a minimum amount. This must go to the construction of infrastructure; hotels, camp sites, restaurants, and only with the participation of the private sector. Mr. Khachikyan assured us that he wouldn’t be investing any money himself in the project. “The ‘Northern Gateway’ tourist project is suggesting a unique tourist package for Armenia and the region – copper extraction scientific expeditions, including excursions to the copper mining museum, where there will be exhibits on the development of copper mining over the past two centuries and scientific tours that will present the connection linking the Statue of Liberty in New York, French President Charles de Gaulle and the Akhtala copper plant There’s also an excursion planned to the Akhtala copper mine, where tourists will be able to extract copper ore. In passing, we should note that the chronology of copper manufacturing in Alaverdi is overlooked in the plan. If we follow the logic of the author of the project, it becomes clear that the tourists visiting Lori Marz will, at minimum, be people greatly interested in the production of precious metals, so interested, in fact, that they will express a desire to go down the Akhtala copper mine and dig for ore. Mr. Khachikyan, however, has overlooked one consideration. However much copper production will go to solve social issues facing the region, it is also a deadly manufacturing process. Thus, it can’t be ruled out that many eco-aware tourists coming from Europe will be flabbergasted by our ignorance, especially when the tourists are told about the tragic harm that has befallen the health of the residents and the flora and fauna of the area as a result of the primitive copper manufacturing technologies in use. During our conversation, Mr. Khachikyan stated that he spent two years working with Dr. Shant Marjaryan, of the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Geography and Urban Construction, to draft the “Northern Gateway” plan. Historical and cultural expeditions are also proposed in the package – excursions to the churches of Sanahin, Haghpat, Akhtala, Odzoun and Kobayr. Also included are proposals for various forms of adventure and eco-tourism – bike tours, canoe/rafting tours, hiking tours, mountain climbing and fishing/hunting tours. Here too, there are striking problems that come to the fore in terms of logistics. For example, those tourists interested in fishing or rafting will be directed to the Debed River into which 75,000 cubic meters of household waste from the communities of Pambak, Tumanyan, Alaverdi and Akhtala is dumped on a monthly basis. Mr. Khachikyan doesn’t view this as a problem. “Armen Saghatelyan, Director of the Hydrology Institute, says that the amount of harmful material in Debed fish species is within acceptable levels,” he claims. What is meant by saying – an acceptable level of existing sewer waste in the food supply? Just imaging such a thing before eating turns ones stomach. Mr. Khachikyan commented on the mounds of household waste lining the shores of the Debed River by saying, “Of course, it’s a negative from a scenic sense. By the way, Dr. Marjaryan also pointed this out to us.” Mr. Khachikyan proposes a list of activities to guarantee the quality, attraction and accessibility of the services noted in his project. This would include, for example, infrastructure creation and renovation, including road construction, water supply, a network of hotels and lodging, etc. Doctor Shant Marjaryan of the Sorbonne University has written a study entitled “An historical/architectural reappreciation and development of tourism in Lori Marz”. Signs of this cooperation aren’t to be found in the “Northern Gateway” project. In his work, Dr Marjaryan considers the following to be an important precondition for the development of tourism in Lori Marz – “The removal of all occurrences that negatively impact of the image of Lori Marz and the ecological, social and other factors that hinder its development”, including water and air pollution, the destruction of green spaces and the lack of parks. Mr. Khachikyan skirts around these issues. Dr. Marjaryan believes that tourism can greatly spur economic development if it is supervised and coordinated properly. These and other vital aspects are lacking in the “Northern Gateway” plan. Thus, betting on the long-term viability of the project would indeed be a long shot.