The influx of Iranian tourists in March to celebrate Nowruz, the traditional Persian New Year, is a major economic event for businesses in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. But while plenty of restaurants and clubs in the city display signs in Farsi, reports of discrimination against Iranian visitors suggest that the tourism surge is a source of social friction.
Most of the discrimination reports are hard to verify and are generally spread by word of mouth. They include alleged confrontations involving Yerevan residents and Iranian tourists, or stories of taxi drivers, restaurants and supermarkets allegedly overcharging visitors.
Thirty-year-old tour guide Yasha Solomonian recently sparked controversy on Facebook when he claimed that he had witnessed a staff member at a toy store in downtown Yerevan deny an Iranian family entrance.
“They were pushed and yelled at, not letting them enter the store,” Solomonian told EurasiaNet.org. “Meanwhile, Armenians entered with no problems. When I came up to ask for an explanation, they said that ‘Iranians are thieves.’ This is an extremely stereotypical approach, which is out of bounds for a country that claims tourism is a top priority.”
Employees at the toy store, Reima, declined to talk with a EurasiaNet correspondent.
The head of the Economy Ministry’s Tourism Department, Mekhak Apresian, indicated that the government is concerned about the country’s reputation among tourists, although he did not specify any measures that the officials might take to address the discrimination reports. “Any discriminatory attitude toward a guest harms us, our country, our image,” Apresian said. “Armenia has rich historical cultural treasures, nature, but it is more important for a tourist to feel welcome in our country. If we lose that, nothing else will matter anymore.”
In 2015, Iranians accounted for just under 10 percent of Armenia’s roughly 1.2 million tourists, according to official data – approximately a 2 percent decline from 2014. That figure, though, is open to interpretation. Armenia requires that incoming Iranians have a visa, but border control cannot determine whether Iranians who enter with a “visitor visa” have come for tourism or some other purpose.
Iranian tourists’ overall financial impact on Armenia’s economy is also hard to pin down. But there is no doubt about the popularity of Armenia for Iranians during the Nowruz holiday, which runs from March 20-23.
Many Iranians see Armenia, their northern neighbor, as a comfortable getaway destination, where they can drink alcohol in public and ditch their chadors, yet still sense that they are in an eastern country. “It feels very familiar in Armenia, especially that there are many Iranians and we can have fun in all possible ways,” commented 28-year-old Saeed Assadi, who said, speaking in English, that he traveled from Tehran to Yerevan with his friends “to relax a little bit and have fun” during Nowruz.
Yerevan resident Narine Manukian, 27, alleged that often Iranian men, particularly near Yerevan’s music-playing fountains, a popular venue for families, try to flirt with Armenian women. Such activity can spur animosity, particularly among Armenian men. “I can understand that it is not that easy to be in freedom after living under a closed régime,” Manukian said of Iran’s Islamic Republic. “And many are taken captive by that freedom, get drunk, try to pick up Armenian girls.”
Citing unfriendly stares and what they believe are negative remarks toward them, Iranian male tourists say they sense locals’ hostility. “There are moments in stores, in public places, when people’s attitude is pretty clear, and next time I will think twice before choosing to come here,” Assadi said.
The Iranian Embassy did not provide a promised response in time for publication. A hotline exists for tourists who encounter problems in Armenia, but an operator told EurasiaNet.org that it has not received any calls.
Much of the criticism voiced in Yerevan about visiting Iranians appears subjective. “Iranian girls dress so vulgarly, semi-nude, which society clearly does not accept,” complained Manukian.
Although Armenian women do not necessarily dress conservatively, locals in this patriarchal society take offense at foreign females wearing bold makeup, extreme mini-skirts and décolletage.
Yerevan-based ethnographer Hranush Kharatian attributes any intolerance toward Iranians to Armenia’s relative ethnic homogeneity – 97 percent of the country’s population of just over 3 million people is ethnic Armenian. Foreign tourists, apart from Diaspora Armenians, remain relatively few.
Iranians have been visiting Yerevan in large numbers for Nowruz only for about 10 years. “Our society is unfamiliar with Iranian tourists, their culture and behavior,” noted sociologist Aharon Adibekian.
History also plays a role. For centuries, the territory that now comprises Armenia was part of the Persian Empire. “The word ‘Iranian’ is not perceived unambiguously among us,” commented Kharatian. “It was associated with the enemy [overlord].”
Asked what prompts rudeness toward Iranian tourists, some Yerevan youngsters joked that it was a response to the war elephants used by the Persians in 451 during the Battle of Avarayr, a fight whose origins were rooted in Persia’s persecution of Armenian Christians.
Ethnographer Kharatian and tour guide Solomonian emphasized that far from all Armenians hold hostile attitudes toward Iranian tourists. “Armenians are very hospitable and friendly, but sometimes you can run into extreme situations,” said Solomonian.
Another Iranian tourist from Tehran, who gave his name as Shahin, said that this year was his second celebrating Nowruz in Armenia, which he described as a “liberal country.” He stressed that locals have always treated him well.
“It is impossible that in all countries of the world everyone treats everyone else with a smile,” the 31-year-old Iranian stated.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.