Submitted by Jonathan Hale, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Europe & Eurasia

I flew out of Moscow’s extreme summer heat to the more arid Yerevan, Armenia. I watched fires and smoke from burning Russian peat bogs and forests out the plane window. The changing climate will clearly have devastating impacts.

I arrived in Yerevan and have been touring the country this week to visit Armenia’s remarkable sites and to see first hand USAID’s innovative work to address development challenges, including economic growth. While in Yerevan I met with business leaders in the tourism sector and learned about the positive impact that USAID programs are having on their growth.

On Sunday, I drove out to the Turkish border to visit the Khor Virap and Noravank monasteries. The massive snow-covered Mount Ararat stood in the background. These are ancient places tied to Armenia’s culture. Mt. Ararat is where tradition says Noah’s ark landed after the flood and the church at Khor Virap is where St. Gregory, who brought Christianity to Armenia in 301 A.D., was imprisoned in a pit for many years.

USAID has supported the Armenian Monuments Awareness Project, which aims to enhance the tourists’ experience at major Armenian historical and cultural sites through road signage, multi-language information boards, printed materials and branded merchandise. I saw USAID supported signs at the monasteries in multiple languages, including in Braille. It was interesting to watch Armenian families reading the signs learning more about their country’s history. Since the launch of the AMAP Project in early 2008, the joint efforts of project implementers have resulted in over 330 information panels and directional signs being installed at 49 monuments throughout Armenia.

On a broader scale, USAID has supported the Armenian government’s efforts to develop tourism for a number of years now. The assistance is aimed at boosting economic growth, developing new markets, improving the skills of the workforce, and creating jobs. The programs also aim to alleviate poverty in rural areas.

Tourism in Armenia has grown strongly overall in the past five years despite the global financial crisis. In 2009, Armenia welcomed 575,281 international tourists. The sector has grown by more than 16% per year for the last five years.

The road to the monasteries wound through breathtaking canyons full of birds and rare trees and flowers. I had lunch in a cave where local people prepared a chicken barbeque and the Armenian flat bread “lavash” over a pit. There is much for visitors to explore and experience in Armenia.

You can check out a map and general information about Armenia and a video that has aired on CNN.