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Iranians Flock To Armenia On Norouz Holiday

For once, Sabeh doesn't have to hide her long bleached hair. This week, she's one of thousands of Iranians traveling to neighboring Armenia during two-week celebrations of Norouz, the Persian New Year, that began on March 21.

"I have come here for concerts, for fun, and just to see the culture," she tells RFE/RL's Armenian Service shortly after arriving in Yerevan by bus from Tehran. "I love Armenian culture, churches, and things like that."

Sporting baggy red pants and a white jacket, Sabeh can already feel the difference between her country's stringent Islamic code of conduct and appearance for women and Armenia's more permissive laws.

"Yeah, of course I feel freer," she says, grinning. "In Iran, they have restrictions on wearing clothes and we have no fun. I hope to have fun here."

'Sold Out'

So do at least 10,000 other Iranians of different ages and social backgrounds that were expected to visit Armenia over the course of two weeks. Persian can already be heard across downtown Yerevan, with groups of tourists -- many of them wearing Western-style clothing -- strolling in the streets, taking pictures, and visiting its numerous cafes and restaurants.

"It's my first-ever trip to Armenia," says one Iranian woman. "It's a new country for me and it's nice, good. And I think people here are very, very calm."

For the Iranian tourists, visiting Armenia is also a rare opportunity to see and hear exiled Iranian singers banned in their native country. Several such pop stars are performing at Yerevan's biggest indoor sports arena in the coming days.

Tereza, a young Armenian working for a local travel agency, says she expects capacity crowds at the 7,000-seat Hamalir arena as she briskly sells tickets to newly arrived tourists. "If things continue like this," she says, "all the seats in the Hamalir will be sold out."

"It's illegal to have such concerts in Iran," explains one Iranian man. "There are some restrictions due to the regime. So they have to come to Armenia for concerts."

Iranian music will also be played in some of Yerevan's nightclubs. They have reportedly been booked by Iranian DJs and entertainers.

Rite Of Spring

The annual influx of Iranian tourists, which began in earnest two years ago, may not be massive by international standards. But it creates a logistical headache for Armenian travel agencies grappling with a lack of accommodations and other underdeveloped tourism infrastructure. All of Yerevan's hotels have been booked practically in full for the next two weeks, forcing them to accommodate many visitors in private apartments or small hotels outside the city.

"We don't have enough hotels," complains Arlen Davudian, the owner of the Tatev Tour agency. "According to our estimates, there are only between 3,700 and 4,000 hotel beds in Yerevan."

Speaking to RFE/RL, Davudian estimates the number of Iranians that will visit Armenia during this year's Norouz holiday at 12,000.

"People cite illogical numbers of Iranian tourists: 40,000, 100,000," he says. "They are grossly exaggerated. Our city doesn't have the capacity to receive that many guests."

The businessman says many more Iranians would travel to Armenia if it had more and cheaper hotels. The Armenian government has so far done little to address that problem, he adds.

Even so, the influx of Iranians appears to have already given a massive boost to Armenia's tourism industry. Travel firms and economic analysts say Iran's 70-million-strong population holds much greater revenue potential for the sector.

"A total of $12 million in cash should come here from Iran in the next two weeks," Davudian says. "Tourism could earn this country very serious revenues. There just has to be a state approach to this."

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