>> Armenia is cashing in on a medical tourism industry focused on the pandemic, writes James Kilner
YEREVAN/JULY 22 2021 (The Bulletin) — Finding a hotel room or an apartment to rent in Yerevan has become a challenge but, in the second year of the global coronavirus pandemic, it is not Armenia’s relaxed attitude towards facemasks and social distancing that is attracting tourists. Instead, Armenia’s offer to vaccinate anybody against the coronavirus has created a new “medical tourism” industry.
The vast majority of these so-called medical tourists are from Iran, as data from Armenia’s tourism ministry showed. It said that the number of people arriving from Iran over the past month has doubled.
And the epicentre of this coronavirus-motivated migration lies at the top of Yerevan’s North Avenue.
Across the road from the hulking grey Soviet-built opera house, an ambulance parks up every day. From 10am, anybody is invited to have a coronavirus vaccination. Priority is given to Armenians but the take up has been poor. The Armenian doctor instead talks to the crowd in English. Standing next to her, a Farsi translator repeats her instructions.
“We did about 100 vaccinations today,” she said later. “A few at the start were Armenian but most, by a long way, are from Iran.”
One of these was Makhmoud from Tehran. He had been waiting for his vaccination standing a few metres back from the crowd, pulling on a slim cigarette, his facemask pushed down under his chin. His wife sat on a bollard next to him.
“What choice do we have?” he said. “The vaccination programme in Iran is falling over and we may have to wait another three or four months for our turn. I’m 57-years-old.”
According to Makhmoud, a retired gas complex worker, the Iranian authorities have only offered the vaccine to people over the age of 60. He had flown to Yerevan but he said that thousands of people were making the overland crossing via Tabriz in the northwest of Iran.
“The problem now, though, is that it is expensive. Now everybody who enters has to wait 10 days to have a vaccine,” he said.
The new rules, that people have to stay in Armenia for at least 10 days before they can have the vaccine were imposed on July 15 and it is clear from ministers’ comments that they were introduced to generate extra income. “Tourism indicators show growth,” media has quoted economy minister Vahan Kerobyan as saying. “Now is a good time to think about medical tourism.”
— This story was published in issue 493 of the Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin, on July 22 2021
— Copyright the Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin 2021