“Yerkink” Social-Legal Support Center Non Governmental Organization (Sky NGO)
Location: Gyumri, Armenia
Implementation period: May 2016 – May 2017
Project coordinator: Knarik Khachatryan
Context, Problem and Objective
Shirak Province’s historic and cultural heritage monuments are mainly concentrated in its rural areas. These are remote monasteries and churches or picturesque mountain landscapes, visiting which requires some particular spiritual and emotional pre-requisites on behalf of a tourist. There are all conditions needed for travel business development present here, and the sector itself is capable, to a large extent, of developing the local communities; yet, the process is very slow, although for the reasons, which do not seem logical enough.
The International Charter on Cultural Tourism, which has been ratified by Armenia, is based on a principle, under which the local public must be involved in operating the heritage sites and in tourism development. And, indeed, with no participation on behalf of the local residents the cultural monuments, tangible and intangible ones alike, are likely to lose their living spirit and turn into lifeless structures These places attract the stream of 1500 to 2000 tourists per year, but the local communities, in fact, fail to receive any profit from them. It seems extremely unjust, because the whole world seems to be aware that rural tourism is a crucial resource for a sustainable economic development.
We were resolved to support conservation of the Shirak Province cultural heritage by using travel business for the purpose as a possible sustainable development tool in the hands of the local communities.
Our project was aimed at working with specific communities in the towns or villages, which are renowned for their majestic landscapes and unique architectural monuments:
– Vahramaberd is known due to its numerous “house chapels” and the Armenia fresco by great Minas Avetisyan painted in 1972. However, the village’s major patrimony is the legendary Marmashen monastery, a whole compound of popular history monuments;
– Harich village situated on the western slope of the Aragats mount. Somewhat west of the village there is a big Bronze Age settlement comprising a number of cultural structures dating back to the 3rd through 10th millenia BC. The village itself has a medieval Harich monastery, an architectural compound, which includes two churches, a chapel and a cemetery;
– Anipemza, an industrial town built after Armenia was included in the USSR, but its first residents had appeared here much earlier. Some Iron Age artefacts (1st and 2nd millenia BC) have been found here: arms and a small lion figurine made of Egyptian paste; Yereruyk temple, or Yereruyk Saint Karapet, a monument dating back to the 4th or 5th century AD, which features some ancient architectural elements, is also situated here;
– Sarnaghbyur village with its St. Hakob and Apostle Tadeo churches or monastic compounds Zaghan and Hogevant, which are famous all over Armenia. Sanctuaries are to be found even in some houses of the village. Unknown Soldier’s monument, picturesque caves and holy water springs, and, last but not least, the tonir ceramics constitute the community’s pride and its business cards;
– The City of Gyumri, which is Armenia’s second one in terms of its significance. Its history goes 5000 years back and represents a series of endless transformations and changed images or names (Kumayri, Alexandropol or Leninakan) under the influence of the great empires or natural disasters. The Spitak 1988 earthquake destroyed a bigger part of the rapidly advancing city within just seconds. The USSR disintegration followed by Armenia’s economic blockade because of the war with Azerbaijan has impeded the restoration work. It was not until a few recent years that the city’s parks and streets have again begun their revival process.
While pursuing a dual objective: motivating the local residents to preservation and revival of the cultural heritage monuments and creating an innovative pattern for these communities’ sustainable development, we have:
– Begun with public opinion surveys among the residents living close to monuments (in 2 stages). They exposed that “economic instability prevents the communities from appreciating the cultural heritage as a significant source of revenues.” Based on the survey results, we made a number of proposals to every community;
– Conducted a series of training sessions involving 125 community representatives on protection of Shirak Province’s historic and cultural heritage, on current situation with the monuments and on any possible threats. Further on, some training participants were selected for participation in business incubators, but the fastest visible and crucial result was represented by setting up the Public Council for Monitoring the Decision-Making Process in the Area of Cultural Heritage at the Local and National Level. It is expected to be a permanent advisory body related to public monitoring in Armenia’s Shirak Province; and
– Launched a business incubator in the master class format, which attracted a lot of interest. A condition of participation provided for founding one’s own business based on the needs available in the heritage sector.
This initiative has started production of traditional souvenirs and adornments, woollen blankets and cases, pillows or overclothes (with the decorations, traditional for the ethnic costumes) intended for the service sector. All these local mini-enterprises have evolved enough to receive regular orders and to make profits, part of which being channelled to conservation of the Shirak Province cultural patrimony.
Partnerships Started by the Project
Guest-house and lodge owners are getting ready to a professional-level reception of their first guests. Under an arrangement reached with the Armintour tour operator, in 2018 the start-ups will organise their demo work in order to try and attract tourists. The Public Council has under its discussion a project for creation of a holistic tourist infrastructure to spring up due to a network partnership among the tour operators and regional institutions and by organising conceptual travel routes.
The Public Council of Anipemza is engaged in negotiations with the Ingenieria Italia on cooperation with the local women’s start-ups. We believe that the new (or revitalised) production units will contribute to the region’s sustainable development.
Some unpredicted auxiliary “reasons” for businesses and initiatives have come about, too. For example, lack of email use skills among the local public served as a motivation to arrange a training session series on information technology use to develop the heritage sector in the region. An appropriate proposal was sent to the Gyumri Technopark, which is managed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications of the Armenian Republic.
Yet another major challenge is represented by lack of convenient mechanism for the public to be engaged in the local-level decision-making processes. Local self-government should provide for a direct involvement in the decision-making process, but in fact a citizen is involved in it in a passive way, only. To encourage public participation, our organisation has plans underway to create an IT project (as a mobile application) for the local authorities to enable informing the local public and the stakeholders on their decisions. In their turn, those willing to be engaged in decision-making will be able to speak out their opinions using a smartphone.
Project Effects and Significance
Apart from the above-mentioned partnerships, the project implementation process has had some other positive consequences, too. The Yereruyk archaeological monument and the village of Anipemza situated near it have been included among 7 most advanced monuments in Europe. The Honorary Council of Italy in Gyumri headed by Mr Antonio Montalto has ordered some products from start-ups, arranged their sales and follows the quality control procedures (to make the start-ups even happier). The start-ups have also received orders from hotels, restaurants and individual customers.
Betghem and Sargis, Harich village residents, inspired by the project events, are reconstructing their houses to serve as lodges. Approximately in 5 years’ time tourists will be able to make their reservations in the lodges and guest-houses without relying on the tour operators’ assistance. IT use remains a main priority in enhancing the required competences among the local residents, because now even the community councils almost do not use any internet-based technologies (which fact, by the way, has not prevented one of the villagers to make a solar water heater using them).
By and large, we have succeeded in establishing relations among the local public, administration authorities and the businesses. Businesses are helpful in preserving the cultural heritage, while the cultural heritage, as a matter of fact, becomes a driver to develop the local business environment. The main thing is that the local residents themselves have seen that heritage is a clue to personal and public prosperity and are learning with enthusiasm how to get an income from their businesses. The community leaders encourage these processes in every possible way.
As to our organisation, it has strengthened its authority in the region and built up its competences in the area of cultural heritage preservation, as well as its social capital. We shall need all these inputs in the future, because we are not going to stop here!