Armenians Put Aside The Past And Choose Turkey For Summer Vacation

Marianna Grigoryan

July 27 2009

Some Armenians call it "a disgrace." Others put it down to
price. Turkey’s popular Mediterranean resort town of Antalya ranks as
Armenians’ number-one summer vacation destination, travel agents say,
and no amount of controversy over Turkish-Armenian ties looks likely
to reverse the trend.

Yerevan travel agency managers report that, amidst a grueling economic
slowdown, Antalya’s reputation for low prices and high-quality
customer service outweighs for many customers the fact that it is
located within the borders of longtime foe Turkey.

Tez Tour’s Armenia office director, Narine Davtian, estimates that by
summer’s end her Russian-owned agency will have twice the number of
Antalya-bound customers as the 8,000 who chose to travel to the Turkish
town in 2008. Armavia’s four direct flights to Antalya each week from
Yerevan, a service offered by Tez Tour, are regularly full, she said.

"I am a patriot, but let’s not mix tourism and politics," Daytian
commented. "No other country can provide the same range [of travel
options] and quality. People want a good vacation and they get it."

Other travel company managers echo that assessment.

"We offer tours to different destinations — Bulgaria, Greece, Italy,
Georgia, Jordan — but the hottest tours are to Antalya in Turkey,"
said Flight agency manager Marine Ayvazian, who estimated that the
town is the choice of 70 percent of Flight’s customers.

The government has no data on the number of Armenians who travel to
Turkey each summer. Armenian travel agencies, it says, will not share
the information, and the lack of diplomatic ties with Turkey means
no alternative option for the data exists.

But while the notion of swimming in the Mediterranean Sea may appeal
to many landlocked Armenians, posters promoting Antalya’s "delightful"
sun-drenched beaches only bring to mind politics for others.

A youth group associated with the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary
Federation-Dashnaktsutiun has requested the Yerevan mayor’s office
remove all street posters advertising Antalya and "to deal seriously"
with the issue. The mayor’s office has not yet acted on the request.

"Advertisements for a vacation in Antalya are springing up like
mushrooms and, instead of spending their vacations in Armenia,
people are leaving for Turkey. Is this normal?" complained Haroutiun
Melikian, who runs an anti-Antalya protest campaign for the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation’s Nikol Aghbalian Student Union.

"The money that goes to arm and strengthen Turkey [via tourism] could
remain in our country and contribute to our own strength," he added.

To combat Antalya’s popularity, the Nikol Aghbalian Student Union
has hung posters throughout Yerevan that declare that "Armenians who
spend their vacation in Antalya are arming the Turkish army."

Other placards focus on Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of ethnic
Armenians, on slain Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink or on Mount
Ararat, a symbol of Armenian ethnic identity located within Turkey.

"We decided to remind people of something they seem to have forgotten,
to sober them up," explained Melikian.

Some Yerevan residents heartily second that decision. "Turkey shouldn’t
have won us over, since political pressures still persist and the word
‘Turk’ is still a curse for us," 34-year-old actor Vahe Nersesian

Employees of several government ministries tell EurasiaNet that
unwritten rules forbid state employees from spending their vacations
in Antalya — this despite the recent official push towards some form
of rapprochement with Turkey.

But the disapproval tactic does not always work.

"If I have to choose between the high prices of Armenian resorts and
an all-inclusive vacation at the seaside in Antalya, I’ll pick the
sea for my family and me, especially when the difference in prices
makes no sense," commented one Yerevan resident booking an Antalya
trip in a travel agency.

On average, travel agencies charge as low as $450 per person for
a week-long package tour in Antalya, while a similar vacation at
Armenia’s Lake Sevan, the mountain resort of Tsaghkadzor or the
mineral water spa of Jermuk start at about $700.

Yerevan State University psychologist Nelly Haroian believes that,
lured by the attractive prices, Armenians are able to put aside
misgivings about the past and feel "comfortable" visiting Turkey since
"Turks are serving them."

Given the crisis-friendly prices for tours to Antalya, expecting
any other reaction is not realistic, commented sociologist Aharon
Adibekian. "There are many questions linked to national self-esteem,
but people are free to decide where to have a vacation and what to do,"
Adibekian said.

The Armenian government says it plans to help with that decision – and
beat the competition — by promoting tours to the disputed territory
of Nagorno Karabkah as an alternative to Antalya.

"We have no sea, and this is a difficulty. We plan serious steps for
developing domestic tourism to Nagorno Karabakh," said Mari Grigoryan,
deputy director of the Ministry of Economy’s department of tourism
and territorial economic development.

"The prices will be reasonable and will counteract those of Turkish
resorts," Grigoryan continued. "Travel agencies working in this
direction will get serious benefits." She did not elaborate.

But, while rich in mountain vistas and historical sites, Nagorno
Karabakh, a favorite with Armenian Diaspora groups, has no resort
hotels or seaside sunbathing on offer.

That brings the question of a summer vacation back to the simple
matter of individual choice, Yerevan travel agents argue.

"We all are patriots," said Tez Tour’s Daytian. "And spending a
vacation in Turkey does not mean being less Armenian."

Editor’s Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based
in Yerevan.