During October of 2016, Zarmina (Zara) Zeitountsian was appointed as the head of the State Committee of Tourism, which aims to increase the competitiveness of Armenia as a tourist destination and enhance its appeal.
According to official statistics, the number of tourists visiting Armenia in 2017 increased by a whopping 18.7% to 1,494,779 people, up from 1,259,657 in 2016. The service sector in 2017 increased volumes by 14.4% - to 1.4 trillion AMD ($ 3 billion) in comparison with the 7.1% growth of the 2016. Hotels have confirmed 24% more visitors in 2017 versus 2016.
It is expected that by 2022, the number of tourists entering Armenia will increase to 3 million. With so much more to achieve, Zara Zeitountsian shows enthusiasm and great optimism for all that is yet to come.
Born in Armenia and having lived a good 20-year chunk of her life in the United States, Zara has enjoyed rebelling against the status quo on multiple levels. She has paved her way fighting to excel in everything she does, earning an MBA and moving into entrepreneurship in art from a corporate financial position she held in the US. Each business that was started had a personal aspect, meeting the needs she found unsatisfied while also conversely meeting the needs of thousands more. It would be her daughter’s love for traditional Armenian music, particularly hymns and Sayat Nova, which would wake her love for her background, while her husband’s own strong Armenian values bolstered the feelings that had begun to surface.
Having grown into her own skin, it would dawn on her one day after returning from a trip to Armenia that she wanted to move back. “For eight days I could not get out of bed. Then it dawned on me. I got up and said, ‘I’m moving to Armenia, who is coming with me?’” Within 3 months, her businesses were sold, her resume sent over, and two jobs were available to choose from. “I came back with a strong sense of – this is my country; good, bad, this is where I belong, this is where I should be no matter how hard it gets. I can’t live there anymore. Too much adrenaline here. Too much excitement.”
Zara assumed the position as head of the State Committee of Tourism and her first assignment was to jot down on a piece of paper the dream Armenia from a tourism perspective and how she wanted to see the country in terms of sustainability in all sectors, whether cultural or environmental or economic. She wanted to see the country loved and respected. “Tourism is much more than people who come and take pictures. These are people who become your ambassadors, who create a cultural exchange, who help guarantee peace. The more people we have here and the more we go out and see the world, the better integrated we become.”
The challenges highlighted that are to be addressed come from a lack of awareness about the country; infrastructure problems, service problems, quality problems. However, demand leads to supply. As such, the main focus of the committee over the next few years will be to raise awareness about Armenia, with digital marketing leading this particular strategy. A lack of country branding and PR in general mean that the State Committee of Tourism can become creative with their work, filling in the blanks and promoting the country as much as possible. Tourism laws are currently under revision, with tour operator, tour bus and tour guides all receiving new legislation to follow.
Furthermore, the committee hopes to address the lack of understanding of what a tourism product really is in terms of added value as well as packaging and presentation. The solution to the problems presented is first to have a countrywide PR campaign with a position statement about who we are and how we want those in the country to see us and those outside to see Armenia. “If we create that umbrella for the country, a lot of awareness issues will be solved.” A collective mentality versus the current individualistic state will also contribute to better the tourism industry, but that will take time to achieve. For now, working together with as many organizations as possible will lend a hand to increase the number of achievements brought home.
“Come here with very realistic expectations. If you come here with very idealistic expectations thinking that someone at the border is going to come and hug you because it is your first time in Armenia and you are an Armenian… that’s not the case.” In her eyes, Armenia is not for weak people. There is no right or wrong time to move, in general, and for her, if someone wants to build something it is the right time. It is a process and no country to say it is the ideal place without any problems. “If you have knowledge and you have skills, you can find a job for you. It is not easy, of course, but it is not impossible. You don’t have to know someone to get hired, as they say is the case here.”
She encourages those who are already established and have a good amount of knowledge to impart to move, to teach. “We have to love our country the way it is. We love our moms, our dads, our children, the way they are, right? We want to make them better, but we are not denying them. At the end of the day, if one feels like they should be in this land, they should be here, accept it as it is, and have a bit of humor as well. After all, there is no place like home’’.
Interviewed by Rima Yeghiazarian
Written by Tamar Najarian