Monday, 24 September

Untapped Potential: Lake Sevan Tourism Fails to Spur Development in Sevan Town

Grisha Balasanyan

The name Sevan, for citizens of Armenia and foreign visitors alike, conjures up images of the huge lake surrounded by mountains, not the town a few hundred meters away.

Surprisingly, when I questioned residents of Yerevan visiting Lake Sevan, a few had no idea that a town with the same name even exists.

Even though thousands visit the lake every year, in summer and increasingly now in the winter as well, the 20,000 or so residents of the town have seen little of the tourist money trickle down to them.

Sevan’s Nayiryan Street is where all the activity is concentrated. Here, I’m mainly talking about street vendors. The few cafes I saw weren’t all that inviting. Once dusk falls, the town “falls asleep”.

The town lacks hotels or other tourist lodgings. They’re all to be found on the lake shore. Those visiting Lake Sevan have no real reason to enter the town, which isn’t on the itinerary of tour operators.

I asked several tour operators why they sidestep the town, but they refused to explain why. 

Vahram Kostanyan, a Sevan native, now lives in Russia. He comes back to visit and says that the current state of Sevan is normal if seen through the eyes of town residents. It’s the same situation all over Armenia, he says.

“It may be described as a tourism destination, but they’re talking about the lake, not the town,” says Kostanyan, adding that there’s a total lack of service amenities meeting international standards both in the town and on the lake shore. He says that none of the entrepreneurs have any desire to meet those standards.

Kostanyan says that those on a budget will have a hard time finding anything decent in the town and its environs.

Gohar Mnatsakanyan, head of the Sevan Youth Club, says that much work is needed to turn the town of Sevan into a tourist destination. Everything’s old, she says, describing the town as a Soviet throwback.

She too decries the lack of decent budget lodgings, and says that every summer she gets hundred calls from people searching for daily rentals in the town or hotel accommodations. The young woman, who recently opened Café Bohème in Sevan, is at a loss as to what to tell them.

“Some prefer to lodge in the town, where it’s peaceful, and take a ten-minute walk to the lake,” Mnatsakanyan says, adding that some young people are comprising a list of apartments and houses in the town available for rent.

The small number of guesthouses in Sevan charge 6,000 AMD and up. Add another 2-3,000 if breakfast is included. Apartments go for 5-6,000 a night.

While visiting Sevan, I met Hannah Huntley, a Peace Corps volunteer from Washington, USA. She’s been working with young people in Sevan for the past three months. She has two more years to go.

Hannah says that the town has a rich history that few are aware of. She told me about the museum and how, if properly prompted and operated, it can be used to attract more visitors.

She believes that Sevan is more scenic than Dilijan, but that it lacks the latter’s guest houses and hotels. Sevan, she says, also lacks any place for young people to relax or pass the time.

I also met Isabelle Malez and her husband from France, visiting Armenia for the first time. They plan to travel to Georgia and Azerbaijan afterwards.

Isabelle told me she had difficulty finding a hotel room. Other French and German tourists told her the same. They said it would be great to have a visitors’ center in the town where tourists could get information on lodging, eateries, etc. Apparently, they didn’t know that an information center is open near the lake’s peninsula.

When asked if they would like to spend the night in a lodging in town, Isabelle responded, “The lake shore is more convenient. The air is better and we sleep well. It’s great to awake to the sounds of birds chirping.”

Davit Torosyan, who runs the information center, says it operates for three months during the summer. The town has opened a mobile office that traverses the peninsula, near the Sevan Monastery.

I spotted a group of Italian tourists who approached the mobile office and picked up some brochures printed in a variety of foreign languages.

Hailing a taxi can be a problem for foreign visitors to Sevan. In order not to be gouged by cabbies, the information center informs visitors not to pay $100-150 for a ride back to Yerevan, but the standard 8-10,000 AMD.

Torosyan says that tour operators don’t cooperate with the center, regarding it as unwelcomed competition.

He notes that the town of Sevan has much to offer tourists – stone crosses, the mountains, the botanical garden – and it’s all free. The garden even offers Wi-Fi.

To underline the chasm that exists between the lake and the town, Torosyan points out that only 500 of the tourists that visited Sevan Monastery last year travelled the 2.5 kilometers into town.

He says that 2,970 individuals used the information center from July 1 to August 8 this year. 256 were from Iran and 200 from Argentina. Only eight were from Russia.

Sevan Mayor Sargis Mouradyan says that the lack of lodging in the town prevents more visitors from staying there.

When asked if there are any business plans in the works to build more accommodations in the town, the mayor answered, “You’re raising a painful issue.”

Mouradyan said that the municipality is negotiating with several interested parties.

“The municipality, despite its limited resources, will assist any entrepreneur or benefactor, seeking to build guesthouses or hotels. This will spur small and medium-sized businesses and create jobs.”

Photos: Davit Banuchyan

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