November 05, 2014

Artak Melkonyan: "Tatev became one of the most popular spots on Armenia's map" Mediamax’s Interview with Artak Melkonyan, the Executive Director of the RVVZ and IDeA Foundations

- It’s been three years since the launch of the Tatev Revival project and the Tatev Wings aerial tramway. What have you been able to achieve during this time?

- The most important achievement has been that Tatev Monastery was once an unknown land that many people had heard of but never visited, and now it is one of the most attractive and visited spots on Armenia's map. People who visit Armenia for just a couple of days try to visit Tatev even though the trip takes an entire day.

The popularization of Tatev Monastery – a place that has played a significant role in the history of the Armenian people - is critical for the success of the Revival project. It is also important that those who visit Tatev are not only foreign tourists, but Armenian citizens and fellow Armenians from other countries.

The Tatev Revival project achieves other strategic objectives as well. For example, one of the goals of the project is to strengthen ties between Armenia and Artsakh. Tatev Revival creates conditions that allow a stable and comfortable flow of tourists – both foreign and domestic – to Artsakh by making Tatev and Goris convenient transit points. It’s rather discouraging to know that the majority of Armenia's citizens have never been to Artsakh and one of the achievements of our project is that we have seen growth in the number of Armenian citizens visiting Artsakh.

As for the Tatev Wings aerial tramway, we can say that this unique project has completely met the expectations of those who conceived it. The aerial tramway became the main driver and symbol of the Tatev Revival project. Before the launch of Tatev Wings, only a couple dozen people visited the Monastery each day, and now hundreds of people visit on weekdays, and on weekends and during peak season the number can exceed 1,200 visitors a day. Over the past three years, 250,000 people have visited Tatev Monastery and 210,000 of them used the aerial tramway. Were it not for the tramway, it would take decades to reach such a high number.

Tatev Wings

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

Another key indicatoris that the Tatev Wings aerial tramway reached a break-even point in the third year of its operation, so it no longer requires substantial investments from founders. That means that all the income from the operation of the tramway will be allocated to addressing the two core goals of the project - restoration of the monastery and community development.

- The IDeA Fund, whichwas set up by RVVZ, the family foundationof Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend, implements other large-scale programs in Armenia as well, in particular the Dilijan International School project. As some know, the Fund adheres to seven principles when implementing projects. Are all of them applicable in the Tatev Revival project?

- Indeed, during the summer of 2013, IDeA Fund founder Ruben Vardanyan formulated seven core principles for the projects to be implemented in Armenia by him, along with his partners, friends and supporters. Those principles are large-scale projects, long-term vision and perspective, global scope and collaboration, multiplier effect, local engagement, sustainability, and international standards.

The large scaleness of the Tatev Revival project and in particular the Tatev Wings project is visible with the naked eye. The volume of investment into the project has been about 21 million USD to the date. If referring to large scale in the literal sense, anyone who uses the tramway can see the majesty and reliability of this engineering structure.

Ruben planned the project 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 on schedule to be completed by 2017. Until then, the necessary infrastructure for projects will be created and commercial projects will improve the region’s standard of living through job creation. We aim to create an environment that will foster sustainable development in the region long after the main goals of the Tatev Revival project have been achieved.

Over 140 people from 18 countries and of various nationalities became donors to this project, which paints a vivid picture of our principle of global scope and collaboration. Let's also remember that the Tatev project became the first completely successful model of public-private partnership in Armenia, and we remain in close cooperation with the National Competitiveness Fund of Armenia (NCFA) in Tatev. On a related note, the private-public partnership model is currently being used for the liberalization of the air communication market.

The launch of Tatev Revival catalyzed the development of tourist infrastructure in the region. There were two functioning hotels in Goris before the aerial tramway began operations, and now there are 14. There are about 200 people working in the hospitality sector in Goris. 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 B&Bs are operating in the region.

Additionally, as I already mentioned,we’re pleased to say that Tatev and Goris have become a unique "hub" that stimulates tourists' interest in visiting Artsakh.

Of the 55 people working on the 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 also to involve them. To this end, we hold various cultural events for residents of neighboring villages. For instance, we organized a screening of the movie "Garegin Nzhdeh" for the villagers of Tatev, Halidzor, Khot, Tandzatap, Shinuayr and Svarants on April 26, the day of the Second All-Zangezur Congress which declared independent Syunik Mountainous Armenia in 1921.

Screening of Garegin Nzhdeh movie in Tatev Monastery

I already discussed sustainability and, as relates to international standards, it is well known that Tatev Wings was built by Swiss-Austrian Doppelmayr/Garaventa, the global leader in cable car construction. And Tatev Wings was included inthe Guinness Record Book not only for the length of the tramway but for the record-breaking period of construction of only 10 months.

Meeting all of these principles is not just a personal goal for the founders and our team. We believe this set of principles is necessary in order for our programs to be successful and to make tangible changes in people’s lives and in the country overall.

- What phase is the Tatev Revival project currently in?

- In four years, in 2017, Tatev Monastery will mark its 1,111th anniversary. We want to complete the restoration of the entire monastery complex by this symbolic date.

The implementation of the restoration plan has already begun. Preparatory works are currently underway, and engineering studies and laser scanning of the monastery wall surfaces are being conducted to define hidden cracks. We have selected restoration specialists very carefully due to the sensitivity of the issue. The specialists we have engaged in the project have long studied issues of preservation of Armenian monuments and this experience is extremely important to us. Naturally, all the restoration plans are reviewed and approved by the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin.

Tatev Monastery

Tatev Monastery.
Photo: Mediamax.

The blueprint of restoration will be ready and made public by the end of 2014 and the restoration work will begin shortly after that.

As relates to the development of the region overall, we have worked out a tourism business development project in Tatev in cooperation with NCFA and USAID.

Aren Apikyan has been the director of the Tatev Revival project for several months already. Due to his active efforts, we have managed to accelerate the implementation of several components of the project and also enhance their effectiveness. Aren pays careful attention to the development of the region and neighboring communities.

- Are you happywith your cooperation with local authorities?

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

Despite our shared understanding on key issues, at times it seems that the leaders of some communities see the Tatev Revival project as a universal cure, the panacea for the social, economic, demographic and other problems faced by communities. Creating conditions for sustainable development in the region is truly one of our key objectives, but that doesn't mean that we can undertake solutions of problems that are under the exclusive purview of local authorities. I often think the leaders of the communities should demonstrate more initiative and not just complain about the drawbacks of this or that issue, but make real proposals to address them. We are willing to consider projects and take part in their implementation even if it wasn't envisioned when developing our current budget.

For instance, we recently signed a memorandum with the Armenian Social Investment Fund to renovate the Halidzor community school. The repairs will cost 115million AMD, of which 47.5% will be covered by the Tatev Revival Fund.

We also provided playground equipment to the Halidzor kindergarten, and we support a souvenir production project in Halidzor and Shinuayr in collaboration with the Homeland Development Initiatives Fund.

- What problems hamper implementation of the project or impactits effectiveness?

- Within the Tatev Gates project, we planned to build a 60-room hotel, which would have allowed us to create 20-25 additional jobs. But since the necessary infrastructure is lacking, such as gas and water supply, the project was suspended.

Due to a lack of irrigation water, it's also very hard for us to create green spaces in the area. Each year, we plant trees – we planted around 800 trees this year – but due to special climate conditions, it's very difficult and expensive to care for them and ensure their growth.

Until recently we dealt with legal proceedings with several community residents who filed lawsuits against us because they wanted to sell their land at a higher price. During this time, we suspended some projects due to uncertainties about the property status. All the claims were dismissed by the court and we expect to secure land ownership by the end of this year and then we will finally be able to begin development.

Bad demographic conditions are still a problematic factor as people continue leaving the villages. We have 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 that supports rural communities and agricultural development.

The lack of qualified specialists is another obstacle. Locals don't have business acumen and sometimes it’s a serious hindrance for boosting small business development in communities. We provide frequent staff training, particularly for those working on the aerial tramway, but we don't have unlimited resourcesand I would like other entities - public, private and charitable - to get involved in the training and retraining of potential workforce.

On the other hand, many people are tempted to start up projects thatin no way fit into the overall spiritual, cultural, historical and environmental ambience ofTatev. We try to explain, guide and advise on what and how something might be appropriate and improve, rather than diminish, the image of the unique complex of sites.

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

- In 2014 we hope to have everything in place in order to begin construction of a hotel near Halidzor station. We will also build an information center, cafes and souvenir stores and allocate places for tourist camping sites.

As I've already mentioned, we're in discussions with some NGOs about developing a program to fund small business in the communities adjacent to the monastery. We are also considering funding the improvement of various social infrastructures in villages, such as cultural centers, hospitals, and kindergartens, in partnership with other organizations.

The litter in the Devil's Bridge area, which you can see during a ride on Tatev Wings, is the fly in the ointment, and we're currently cleaning the gorge and trying to prevent litter in the future. Our Fund currently employs two people who clean the area and we also pay for a portion of garbage disposal from neighbouring villages. Of course more effective methods are needed but they won't be possible until people realize that the garbage and “graffiti” they leave behind are noticed immediately by guests to our country who expect to see us as heirs of an ancient culture.

Next year we will also start funding the church choir of Tatev Monastery which will involve residents of the neighbouring villages. We plan to hire a professional choirmaster and acquire necessary music equipment.

As for other plans of the RVVZ and IDeA Foundations, a very significant event will take place in September 2014 whenthe Dilijan International School receives 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. Admission has already begun through UWC National Committees operating in 140 countries. In January 2014, John Puddefoot who was former the Deputy Head of Eton College in the UK will take up his duties as Head of the school.

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


Ara Tadevosyan spoke with Artak Melkonyan.  

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