Partying in Armenia

by AFP/Mariam Harutunian, Apr 5, 2011 | Destinations: Armenia / Iran

Yerevan, Armenia - Iranian boys in jeans and leather jackets and girls in short dresses lose themselves in the rhythms of their idols, swaying to the beat and mouthing lyrics which are banned in their home country.

Singers who are not allowed to play live in Iran entertain their fans every year at the Sport-Concert Complex in neighbouring Armenia -- a relatively liberal Christian country which is attracting increasing numbers of tourists from the Islamic republic during the Persian new year festival of Nowruz.

Posters advertising concerts by Iranian musicians can be seen all over the Armenian capital during Nowruz, a two-week holiday which some Iranians use as an opportunity to travel and escape the restrictions at home.

"We love these singers so much, but they are banned in Iran," said 21-year-old student Milad Alizadeh, one of thousands watching his heroes play their forbidden anthems live in Yerevan.

"We love pop music and listen to it in our homes and cars, but not in public places."

Alizadeh said that he was spending his time in Yerevan walking around the city, soaking up the local culture as well as going to bars and discos, dancing and drinking beer, which is also prohibited in Iran.

"Yes, the freedom that exists here is attractive, but we are not only here for freedom and concerts -- we want new experiences, new places, new people, new culture," he said.

Iranian women on a Nowruz break in Yerevan often use the opportunity to cast off their headscarves and drab cover-all overcoats, and dress up in jeans and T-shirts.

More than 20,000 tourists from the Islamic republic are expected to visit the Armenian capital during this year's Nowruz celebrations, according to Hamid Mordakhani, a spokesman for the Iranian embassy.

"Iranian people very much like to travel during the holiday period," Mordakhani said.

"Armenia also attracts Iranian tourists with its beautiful architecture, historic monuments and comparatively affordable prices."

Yerevan restaurants which specialise in Persian cuisine have been doing good business.

At Shirvan, an atmospheric little eaterie in the city centre, the walls are decorated with Persian paintings and carpets, the enticing smell of spices and the aromatic smoke from hookah pipes hangs in the air, and all the tables are reserved.

"We barely manage to serve all the customers during Nowruz," said the owner, Shirvan Ahad Javadi.

By Armenian standards, visiting Iranians are relatively big spenders.

Some tourists are willing to spend up to $300 (211 euros) a night on rooms at city centre hotels, while tickets for Nowruz concerts featuring Iranian singers can cost as much as $70 (49 euros) -- a significant sum in this small, impoverished ex-Soviet republic.

"Iranians prefer to celebrate the holiday in Armenia because pop music and alcohol is banned in their country," said Tigran Davtian, a local tourism expert.

"In addition, both countries enjoy good-neighbourly relations, and there is a simplified visa regime."

Suffering from long-term political disputes with two of its other neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have led to an economic blockade and closed borders, Armenia has been developing its links with Iran -- and not just in the sphere of tourism.

 Trade turnover between the two countries has been increasing, from $206 million (145 million euros) in 2009 to $273 million (194 million euros) last year -- a significant boost for Armenia's fragile economy.

On a visit to Tehran for a Nowruz celebration on Monday, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said that the friendship and business links between the two countries were "a good example of cooperation and mutual enrichment between Christian and Islamic civilisations".

The two countries are working on several joint energy and transport projects, and the Iranian embassy in Yerevan predicts that the tourist inflow is also set to continue.

"If the infrastructure and service standards in Armenia improve, the number of Iranian tourists will only increase," said embassy spokesman Mordakhani.

* * * * *