The problem isn’t that Syunik is short of tourists. Armenia’s southernmost region is famed for its mountain scenery; visitors flock to the medieval Tatev Monastery, which can be accessed by the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway (which runs for 5.7 kilometers). Syunik is a hotspot for Armenia’s mining industry; some ecologists warn that mining brings environmental damage and extensive pollution. But it also brings money and jobs to a region: according to data from Armenia’s State Revenue Committee for the first quarter of 2019, the Zangezur Molybdenum Combine and Armenian Mining Constructor LLC, both of which operate in the nearby city of Kajaran are among the country’s top 20 taxpayers.
Recent experience suggests that it might be hard for a thriving mining sector to easily coexist with ecotourism. For example, the results of inspections carried out by the Inspectorate for Nature Protection and Mineral Resources in 2018 show that there have been wastewater leakage from Zangezur Copper and Molybdenum Combine. The results of Soil and Water Testing of Center for Responsible Mining of American University of Armenia show that due to regular pipeline leaks, wastewater from the Zangezur copper and molybdenum combine directly percolates into water sources, polluting rivers and agricultural land. In the neighboring Vayots Dzor region, a dispute still simmers between protesters and the mining company Lydian International over a planned gold mine at Amulsar mountain. The former argue that the mine could have a negative impact on the nearby resort town of Jermuk, which is famous for its mineral water; the latter insists that the mine poses no such threat.
Its proponents also see ecotourism as an alternative to large luxury hotels and expensive tour packages. Environmental activist Anna Shahnazaryan, 34, who wrote her master’s dissertation at Lund University, Sweden about the development of ecotourism in Syunik, explained that ecotourism is all about finding a business model which helps conserve nature. Shahnazaryan added that ecotourism is implemented on a far smaller scale than traditional tourism and seeks to engage local people in the process.
“There are currently destroyed areas of the ecosystem in Syunik, but there are also untouched parts too, which have to be conserved,” explained the environmental activist in a telephone interview. “My research shows that for the development of ecotourism, we in Armenia only have one competitive advantage, and that is our nature. But [that] alone is not enough; we also need an ecotourism strategy, and that requires [improved] local infrastructure and the political will to implement it to high standards,” concluded Shahnazaryan.
But just like more commercial tour operators, Armen’s first step was to entice visitors to Kapan. Armen suggests that task is easier said than done, saying that many people associate its name with mining and are not aware that its surroundings also include pristine alpine scenery which could attract tourism.
Much like other locals, Armen initially doubted that Kapan had any tourist potential worth mentioning. But when he moved back home after four years living in the Russian city of Sochi, Kazaryan learned of a trend which soon changed his mind.
“Most tourists visit Tatev [in northern Syunik], but there is also a big flow of travellers following the Silk Road, who continue their journey further south, and pass through Kapan on their way to Iran. Usually they are low budget travellers, and most of them also want to volunteer,” added Siranush, who is originally from the city of Gyumri in north-western Armenia.
Some of these travellers can be found at the Ark Eco-camp, located about half an hour’s walk from the center of Kapan.
The couple founded the camp shortly after Armen returned from Sochi in 2015, with the help of crowdfunding, foreign volunteers, and their own savings. A local mine even donated recycled materials which were used to construct a “therapy garden,” where Armen conducts sessions based on a method he calls the “mechanics of happiness.”