In every country I’ve served, I’ve found that the best way to get to know a place is by travelling—getting out to see the country and meet its people. And that’s just what I’ve been doing here in Armenia! Nearly every month since arriving in February, I have been on the road: exploring different marzes (regions), from the most northern, Shirak and Tavush to the most southern, Vayots Dzor and Syunik. Each marz offers something unique and different, and the people I’ve met throughout my travels have helped me learn about this beautiful country and its rich and ancient culture.
Many of my travels are formal visits to local officials, business owners and decision makers within communities, and though I enjoy meeting these partners, some of my favorite experiences have been when I’ve had the opportunity to interact with local artisans, farmers, teachers, students, parents — everyday Armenians! U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s My Armenia project is one of the ways we find these talented people. And, because of this program, communities are getting to meet more and more Americans like me.
USAID has been supporting efforts to grow Armenia’s tourism sector for many years. They’ve supported local artisans, invested in infrastructure and refurbishment, and helped Armenia lay the groundwork for improved sector management. Then, in 2013, USAID joined with the renowned Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to implement the My Armenia project, a strategic, innovative effort to capitalize on the country’s rich culture by creating experiential tourism opportunities.
The project is working with the Armenian government to promote regional economic development by building capacity of community-based festivals, museums, artisans and cultural experiences, and by training and connecting Armenian tour guides to American tour operators. Through these efforts, My Armenia is transforming tangible and intangible cultural assets into economic benefit for Armenia’s regional communities. All of this has the goal of refining Armenia’s tourism experiences, services and products, and increasing the number of international visitors.
To energize this effort, Armenia was featured at the 2018 Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington, D.C., which thousands of visitors attended. It was an excellent opportunity to showcase Armenia and entice Americans to visit the country. Since then, the project has been hard at work to not only build capacity within the Armenian tourism sector but build partnerships between U.S. tour operators and Armenian companies and tour guides. And these efforts are paying off: there has been a 12 percent increase in visitors to Armenia in the last year alone!
I’ve been impressed by the work that My Armenia has done, including supporting 102 artisans in five marzes to design, develop, market, and sell their products. Once a year, these artisans come together at the My Handmade Armenia festival in Yerevan. I was excited to attend this festival, meet the artists, see some friends, and make many purchases! I was also happy to see foreign visitors- and Armenians- wandering through the stalls. These kinds of festivals and events not only expose Armenian cultural heritage to the public, but also help generate income for artisans, and in turn, the broader economy.
On my most recent travels, I’ve had the chance to visit some My Armenia partners in their home areas: the Mosh Studio in Yeghegnadzor (Vayots Dzor Marz), for example, is an atelier which features custom made, hand-painted dresses, scarves and other accessories that incorporate the region’s natural landscape and beauty. The studio also offers master classes on batik doll making based on ancient Armenian traditions. To help the Mosh Studio attract tourists, and promote its brand, My Armenia worked with the owner to develop a business concept and create marketing and branding materials. As a result, Mosh Studio is expanding and gaining recognition, and, these days is hosting visitors more often.
I was happy to also experience the culinary side of My Armenia’s great work in Vayots Dzor when I visited Under the Walnut Tree, a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. In an idyllic setting, Under the Walnut Tree is a welcoming and peaceful place that also offers a variety of classes in wine and vodka making and tasting, lavash baking, honey harvesting, and wood carving. Though I didn’t get a chance to try all these activities, I did love my lunch and enjoyed meeting the owner who has benefitted from My Armenia trainings, marketing support, and more. Since participating in the project, Under the Walnut Tree has noticed more visitors stopping by for a meal or to spend the evening as they explore the beauties of the region.
All these examples, and more, exist in this beautiful and ancient country. I encourage everyone to get out to see Armenia. Experience the people, the culture, the food, the countryside. Take hikes along the Trans-Caucasian trail, share dolma, figs, horovatz, and more with some new friends; learn an ancient craft like carpet weaving, or crush grapes at the next Areni Wine Festival. I hope to see you there- you know that I will be!