"Tatev became one of the most popular spots on Armenia's map"

05.11.2013 | 13:30 Home / News / Articles /

Interview of Executive Director of RVVZ and IDeA Foundations Artak Melkonyan to Mediamax

- Three years passed since the start of "Tatev Revival" project and launch of "Tatev Wings" aerial tramway. What did you manage to achieve for this period of time?

- The most important achievement was that if Tatev Monastery was a kind of "terra incognita" before - many people heard of it but had never been there - now Tatev is one of the most attractive and visited spots on Armenia's travel map. Even people who visit Armenia for a couple of days strive to be in Tatev though the trip takes the whole day.

Popularization of Tatev Monastery which had historically played a significant role in the life of the Armenian people is a necessary step toward practical realization of the idea of Revival. The fact that Tatev is not only visited by foreign tourists but Armenian citizens and our compatriots from many countries is also important.

"Tatev Revival" project fulfills other strategic objectives as well. One of the goals of the project is strengthening ties between Armenia and Artsakh. "Tatev Revival" creates conditions for organization of stable and comfortable tourist flow making Tatev and Goris convenient "transit points" for Armenian citizens and foreign tourists traveling to Artsakh. There is rather discouraging information that the majority of Armenia's citizens have never been to Artsakh and one of the achievements of our project is that we see growth in the number of Armenian citizens visiting NKR.

As for "Tatev Wings" aerial tramway, we can state that this unique project fully met the expectations that the project's initiators had about it. The aerial tramway became the main driver and symbol of "Tatev Revival" project. Before the launch of "Tatev Wings", only a couple of dozens of people visited the Monastery on a daily basis while now hundreds of people come here during weekdays, and at weekends and peak season the daily number of tourists may exceed 1 200 people. Over the 3 years, 250 thousand people visited Tatev Monastery and 210 thousand of them used the aerial tramway. Weren't for the aerial tramway, we would need decades to reach such an index.

"Tatev Wings" aerial tramway.
Photo: IDeA Foundation.

Another key factor is that "Tatev Wings" aerial tramway reached a break-even operating performance in the third year of its operation, and doesn't require substantial investments from founders. That means that all the income from the operation of the tramway will be allocated to implementation of two core goals of the project - restoration of the monastery and development of communities.

- IDeA Fund set up by the RVVZ, family fund of Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend, implements other large-scale programs in Armenia as well, particularly, the project of Dilijan International School. As is known, the Fund adheres to 7 charity principles while implementing its projects. Are all of them applicable to the project of "Tatev Revival"?

- Indeed, in summer 2013, founder of IDeA Fund Ruben Vardanyan formulated 7 major principles for the projects implemented by him in Armenia together with his partners, friends and supporters: Large-scale projects, Long-term vision and perspective, Global scope and collaboration, Spillover effect, Engaging local population, Sustainability, International standards.

The large scale of "Tatev Revival" project and particularly "Tatev Wings" projects can be seen with the naked eye. The volume of investments into the aerial tramway made about USD21mln. If speaking about the large scale literally, any person who used the tramway can evaluate the majesty and reliability of this engineering structure.

The project was planned by Ruben 10 years ago, in 2003. Today we mark the third anniversary of the official launch of the aerial tramway and the restoration of the monastery is due to be over in 2017. Over this time, the projects are filled with relevant infrastructure, commercial projects-satellites which aim to improve living standards in the region through creating new jobs. We strive to create such an environment after achieving the main goals of the project which will allow the region to continue its sustainable development based on the opportunities provided by "Tatev Revival".

Over 140 people of various nationalities from 18 countries became donors of the project and it vividly illustrates the principle of global scope and collaboration.  Let's not forget that the Tatev project in fact became the first in Armenia where the model of private-public partnership was tested and the first attempt didn't fail at all. We keep closely cooperating with the National Competitiveness Fund of Armenia (NCFA) in Tatev. By the way, it should be noted in this context that the model of private-public partnership is currently used for liberalization of the air communication market.

Launch of "Tatev Revival" catalyzed the development of tourist infrastructure in the region. There were two functioning hotels in Goris before the start of the operation of the aerial tramway while now there are 14 of them. The overall number of people in the hospitality sector in Goris makes about 200 people. The infrastructure is developing in the communities adjacent to the monastery as well. The first hotel in the village of Shinuayr opened recently and about 20 hostels in Bed&Breakfast format are operating in the region.

Besides, as I already said we are happy to note that Tatev and Goris become a unique "hub" stimulating tourists' interest in trips to Artsakh.

Out of 55 people working in "Tatev Wings" aerial tramway, 53 are residents of adjacent communities and Goris. At the same time, it's important for us not only to employ locals but involve them into the collective work. To this end, we hold various cultural events for residents of neighboring villages. For instance, we organized screening of "Garegin Nzhdeh" movie for the villagers of Tatev, Halidzor, Khot, Tandzatap, Shinuayr and Svarants on April 26, on the Day of Holding Second All-Zangezur Congress which declared independent Syunik Mountainous Armenia in 1921.

Screening of "Garegin Nzhdeh" movie in Tatev Monastery.
Photo: Mediamax.

I already mentioned about sustainability, and as for international standards, it's well known that "Tatev Wings" have been built by the world leader in construction of cable cars, Swiss-Austrian Doppelmayr/Garaventa. I should also recall that "Tatev Wings" was included into the Guinness Record Book not only for the length of the tramway but the record-breaking period of construction - only 10 months.

Meeting the mentioned principles is not a self-goal for our founders and the team. We think this "set" of principles necessary for our programs to be successful and make tangible changes in the lives of people and country on the whole.

- What phase is currently the "Tatev Revival" project in?

- Within 4 years, in 2017, Tatev Monastery will mark its 1111 anniversary. We want to complete the restoration of the whole monastery complex by this symbolic date.

The work over the restoration plan already started. Preparatory works are currently underway, engineering studies and laser scanning of the surfaces of the monastery walls to define hidden cracks are being conducted. We have chosen the specialists for restoration very carefully realizing the sensitivity of the issue. The specialists we involved in the project have long studied issues of preservation of Armenian monuments and this experience is of extreme importance to us. Naturally, all the plans for restoration are approved by the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin.

Tatev Monastery.
Photo: Mediamax

The project of restoration will be ready by the end of 2014 and made public and the restoration works will start shortly afterwards.

Speaking about the development of the region on the whole, in cooperation with the NCFA and USAID, we worked out the project of developing tourism business in Tatev. Besides, we discuss the small and micro business funding program in the communities adjacent to the monastery.

It's already several months that Aren Apikyan has been the director of "Tatev Revival" project. Owing to his active efforts, we managed to speed up realization of a number of components of the project and enhance their effectiveness. Aren pays special attention to the region's and adjacent communities development.

- Are you content with the cooperation with local authorities?

- We have good working relations with the Syunik governor. We also closely cooperate with the heads of the local communities.

Despite our good understanding on key issues, sometimes it seems that the heads of some communities consider "Tatev Revival" project as a universal cure, aimed at settling all the current social, economic, demographic and other problems. Creating conditions for sustainable development in the region is really one of our key objectives but that doesn't mean that we can undertake the solution to problems which are in direct charge of the local authorities. I think the heads of the communities should often demonstrate more initiative and not only complain at the drawbacks of this or that field but make real proposals to settle them. We are ready to consider the projects and take a feasible part in their implementation even in case it wasn't always envisaged by our current budget.  

For instance, we recently signed a memorandum with Armenian Social Investment Fund on overhauling the school of the community of Halidzor. The repairs will cost AMD115mln, 47.5% of them will be covered by "Tatev Revival" Fund.

We also equipped the children's playground of the kindergarten in Halidzor, we support the project for souvenir production jointly with Homeland Development Initiatives Fund in the communities of Halidzor and Shinuayr.

- What problems hamper implementation of the project or affect its effectiveness?

- Within "Tatev Gates" project, we were going to build a 60-room hotel which would allow us to create 20-25 extra jobs. But as there is no necessary infrastructure (gas supply, water supply), the project was suspended.

Due to lack of irrigation water, it's also very hard for us to arrange green spaces in the territory. Each year, we plant trees (around 800 trees were planted this year) but due to special climate conditions, it's very difficult to take care of them and ensure their growth and it's also has to do with large  expenses.

Until recently we had court trials with several residents of the communities who filed lawsuits against us wishing to sell their lands at a higher price. For this time, we suspended some projects as uncertainty with the status of the land caused problems. All the claims were dismissed by the court and we reckon to get land tenures by th end of this yesr and we will be able to start their development at last.

Bad demographic conditions is still a problematic factor as people continue leaving the villages. We managed to partially slow down the process by creating workplaces but they're not enough. To radically change the situation, we need a public policy for supporting rural communities and development of agriculture.

Lack of qualified specialists is another obstacle. The locals don't have business skills and experience and sometimes it's a serious hindrance for boosting development of small business in the communities. We often undertake staff training (particularly, for those working at the aerial tramway) but we don't have unlimited resourses and I would like other structures - public, private and charity ones - to get involved into training and retraining of potential staff.
On the other hand, many people are tempted to start up "projects" which in no way fit into the overall picture of special combination of spiritual, cultural, historical and environmental ambience around Tatev. We try to explain, guide and advise what, how and in what form can be acceptable and won't deteriorate but, vice versa, improve the perception of the unique complex of sights.

- This year is drawing to end. What is scheduled for 2014?

- We hope that necessary conditions will be created in 2014 which will allow us to start construction of a hotel near "Halidzor" station. We are also going to build an information center, cafes and souvenir stores and allocate places for tourist campings.

As I've already said, we're discussing the program of funding small and micro business in the communities adjacent to the monastery with NGOs. We also consider the options of funding improvement of social infrastructure in villages (centers of culture, hospitals, kindergartens) together with our partner organizations.

Litter in the "Devil's Bridge" territory which is seen during a flight on "Tatev Wings" is "the fly in the ointment", and we're currently working to clean the gorge and create conditions for preventing littering in the future. Our Fund currently employs 2 people who take care of cleaning the territory. We also partially pay for garbage disposal from neighboring villages. Of course, more effective methods are needed but they won't be effective till people realize that garbage and "graffiti" on the rocks which they leave after them are immediately noticed by our country's guests who expect to see us as heirs of the ancient culture.

We will also start funding the church choir of Tatev Monastery next year which will involve residents of the adjacent villages. We are going to hire a professional choirmaster and purchase all the necessary music equipment.

As for other plans of RVVZ and IDeA Foundations, a very significant event will take place in September 2014 as Dilijan International School will receive its first 90 students from 45 countries. The school has recently become a full member of United World Colleges (UWC) and will be named UWC Dilijan. The admission already started through UWC National Committees operating in 140 countries. In January 2014, the Head of the school John Puddefoot who was former the Deputy Head of Eton College in UK will take up his duties.

Thus, 2014 will be an important year for implementation of our projects.

Ara Tadevosyan talked to Artak Melkonyan.

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