In all of my 9 visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, I have always felt very safe and have never been subjected to any personal danger whatsoever. I will be making many more visits there and am thankful that I had the good fortune to find this enigmatic land a few years ago.
For most of us outside of Nagorno-Karabakh we don’t realize the extent of the genuine danger that we live under, and yet, seemingly, are totally irrational to a place where a conflict ended 20 years ago. This is largely borne out by ignorance. Sarajevo, which was under siege at the same time as the Nagorno-Karabakh war, receives about 20 times the number of tourists. Somehow those visitors have forgotten the daily news bulletins of the “war-torn” capital. Also millions of people travel to Belfast (Northern Ireland UK) each year, now, even though it was the scene of inter-community violence and bombings for 30 years and even to this day devices are still being planted in places that, theoretically could kill tourists. For some reason a blind eye is turned to this risk. But for Nagorno-Karabakh, the myth continues.
I have heard people ask if there are risky areas, or places which should be avoided due to land mines – yes of course. The popular maxim which applies to all tourists in any destination in the world is to do your research and be aware of the guidelines that you are given. If you travel to New York and drift into no-go areas late at night, despite the advice given in the hundreds of tourist books, then the outcome is likely to be very risky. In Nagorno-Karabakh you will never accidentally find yourself anywhere near a military establishment which poses any danger for a visitor. For anyone who is visiting the many beautiful tourist destinations in the country then there is simply no risk. If you want to act recklessly and ignore advice given by locals and head into the mountains alone into known minefield areas then that is no different to going into the “bad areas” of any capital city late at night.
So just to re-iterate – Nagorno-Karabakh is a safe place to visit.
Is it difficult to get to Stepanakert? Simple answer – No.
There are many flights into Yerevan. Anyone using Paris or London as a hub can fly via Air France or if using Moscow, via Aeroflot. The airport in Yerevan is a beautiful new building, and very passenger-friendly and there are plenty of authorized taxis able to take you into the city centre. Yerevan has many quality hotels all of which can be booked either directly, or through the usual internet agencies like Booking.com. As with any major city, accommodation is available for all price ranges.
The only way of getting to Stepanakert from Yerevan is by road. This can be done by bus ( which is very cheap) or a taxi can be hired. Personally, I always go by taxi which costs about £40-£50 ($70-$80) – this is cheap for a 6 hour journey. It is occasionally raised as a major hurdle for people not visiting. However they are prepared to spend much longer confined to an aircraft, with no view at all. If you go in a taxi, the journey is more flexible – you can stop as often as you want, watch the beautiful landscape unfold, and you may even enjoy some of the delights of the culture on the way.
Stepanakert, and Shushi now have some very modern, and luxurious hotels that will appeal to the European/American traveler and are very reasonably priced. I was privileged to have been shown round the rooms and the facilities of the new Vallex Garden Hotel – the rooms there are extremely good, and would be very pleasant for people who like their comforts when travelling. There are many high quality restaurants and cafes available in the city as well and, for those who have the opportunity to meet up with some of the locals, then a meal hosted by a family would be a treat to remember – and you will be made to feel very special!
There is a vast amount of unspoilt scenery and places to visit in the country. The Governments website has some powerful videos, and photographs, as well as much more information to help the tourist. For people from the established industrialised nations then you will find the country very good value compared to what you are used to.
The vast majority of people in the UK, assuming they leave the country, will only go on holiday to conventional tourist destinations in Western Europe, US, Canada, and a few well known Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. Poland and Croatia is about as far East as they would go, in Europe, and that is considered to be exotic, so encouraging people to go to Nagorno-Karabakh would be a long process.
However for the people in the global Armenian Diaspora this should not be the case.
As an unrecognized country it is extremely difficult for manufactured products to be exported much beyond Armenia, or Russia, which severely curtails the ability of the country to grow from within. Most of the significant investments into the infrastructure are made by wealthy business people / philanthropists from the Diaspora. The one export that can be made, without the movement of goods is Tourism – there is no particular reason why this cannot continue to grow. In addition to bringing money into the country, it will bring confidence to the people that they are “recognized”, and this will gradually help with their greater well-being.
Since 2009 the number of tourists ( excluding those from the Republic of Armenia) has grown by 40% per year but in 2013 this will still only be in the region of 20,000 people. If 1% of the Armenian Diaspora visited each year this would be nearer 100,000 people. Although the major infrastructure projects supported by the Telethons are important, perhaps an appeal which supports people actually visiting Nagorno-Karabakh could be another initiative?
A modest increase in the tourist traffic would have a profound effect on the local economy and if done in a co-ordinated, and considered way, the influx of money could directly help a large number of people in the country. Ultimately, this could be a life-changing experience for the people visiting – as it did for me – as well as the many people living in this besieged Armenian country.