USAID Launches Partnership with Smithsonian to Support Cultural Heritage Tourism in Armenia

man at a podium
USAID Launches Partnership with Smithsonian to Support Cultural Heritage Tourism in Armenia

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Smithsonian Institution have partnered for an innovative project to support cultural sustainability through cultural tourism in Armenia. The project was launched on November 20 at an official ceremony at the Matenadaran Scientific Research Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, which holds one of the world’s richest collections of medieval manuscripts and books. The ceremony included remarks by the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills, Jr., Prime Minister of Armenia Hovik Abrahamyan, and the Senior Advisor of the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations, Halle Butvin. About 100 people attended the event, including representatives of the Government of Armenia, the private sector and the tourism industry at large.

The goal of the four-year project, which is funded by USAID, is to enhance and increase cultural heritage tourism in the regions outside of Armenia’s capital Yerevan, through a unique combination of research, scholarship, support for artisan craft, capacity building, and a strong focus on fresh thinking for tourism development.

“The global tourism market continues to grow and touch new destinations. Armenia’s rich cultural heritage, unique cuisine, beautiful natural environment and welcoming people make it a special place,” said Ambassador Mills. “The purpose of the “My Armenia” project is nothing less than to put Armenia on the map as a world-class tourist destination. We intend to not only contribute to the development of the tourism industry in Armenia, but also ensure that the benefits of that growth are widely distributed across the country by promoting tourism to regions outside of Yerevan, thus enhancing the economic prospects of Armenia’s rural communities.”

The Smithsonian has a long history of working with communities around the world to support efforts in cultural sustainability, whether protecting cultural heritage threatened by human conflict and natural disaster, or supporting the long-term sustainability of diverse cultural sectors.

Through training, programming, community engagement and documentation, and other methods, Smithsonian curators and project staff from across the Institution will work with partners in Armenia to develop new strategies for sustaining cultural heritage.

This project will support traditional arts, crafts and music in the country and lead to greater benefits for rural communities in Armenia, broader awareness about Armenia in international markets, as well as help protect and enhance Armenia’s natural and cultural heritage.

“Tourism can be a driver of economic development by generating employment in hotels and restaurants, as well as increasing business for taxi drivers, those making and selling souvenirs, or those providing goods and services to tourism-related businesses,” Ambassador Mills said. “However, to spread the wealth generated by tourism, Armenia needs to develop anchor tourism sites outside of Yerevan and link them together in a tourism circuit that spans the length and breadth of the country. This new project will provide technical assistance to develop such a circuit, which will encourage travelers to travel outside of Yerevan and spend more money in the regions. This is just one of the many ways the U.S. Embassy is partnering with the Armenian people to strengthen the economy of Armenia’s rural regions.”

The Smithsonian has a long history of working with USAID on international programming to support the conservation of biodiversity, museum workforce capacity building, and emerging cultural institutions.  Reflecting a renewed partnership between the two organizations established through a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding, the “My Armenia” project signifies a new, collaborative approach to combine the strengths of the two organizations for greater impact.

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About the Smithsonian Institution
Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities. There are 6,400 Smithsonian employees, including approximately 500 scientists, and more than 5,500 volunteers. Approximately 28 million people from around the world visited the Smithsonian in 2014, with more than 175 million visits to the Smithsonian websites. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at 138 million. To learn more about the Smithsonian, please visit For information about “My Armenia” project, please contact

Remarks by Halle Butvin, Senior Advisor, Office of International Relations, Smithsonian Institution

Good morning and thank you Ambassador Mills and Prime Minister Abrahamyan for your comments and support for this project, and to all of you, thank you for being here this morning. We have been looking forward to this day for some time. Smithsonian and USAID have been working closely together over the last year and a half to design My Armenia – a tourism development project with a distinctly different flavor. It is no coincidence that we are here today launching My Armenia at Matenadaran, the symbolic and current physical seat of some of Armenia’s most important cultural heritage and a historically important center of science and culture – a place where the works of historians, geographers, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, poets, miniature painters and others were both created and kept.

As Ambassador Mills mentioned, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex – with the addition of our National Museum of African American History and Culture later this year, we will have twenty museums and 9 research centers where scholars are working to advance our global mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge. One of the grand challenges guiding and directing our work at Smithsonian is Valuing World Cultures, and an integral component of that challenge is addressing issues of cultural sustainability. In a global and interconnected world where everything changes, the choices we make influence the very existence of some of the cultural traditions we hold most dear. That intangible cultural heritage – our music and dance, food and drink, art and craft, the very way in which we do things – is a big part of what makes us, as people and as places, unique. And for tourists, very often people from other places and with other traditions visiting a new destination and experiencing different music and dance, different food and drink, different art and craft – this unique quality is the very essence of what makes a tourism destination and an individual’s holiday experience so memorable.

In our work on cultural sustainability, Smithsonian recognizes its intrinsic value – we believe that cultural expression is essential to human well-being and community health — but there are clear economic implications as well. Especially with regards to tourism and artisan craft, for many communities around the world, our cultural practices are also a means of earning a livelihood. For artisans, if there is a market for the things we make, then we will continue to make them. This link between cultural heritage and markets – and the fine balance in deciding what we keep and what we share with others – is central to the work Smithsonian does with communities around the world. Our commitment to cultural sustainability is what led Smithsonian to begin our work here, in Armenia.

Armenia’s physical heritage – the incredible, iconic churches with such unique and beautiful architecture and placed in some of the most picturesque scenery in the world – is the perfect place from which we start our work. In designing My Armenia, we acknowledged that these sites are one very important thread in Armenia’s vibrant cultural tapestry. We met with the Government of Armenia, USAID, and stakeholders for this project, including key players in Armenia’s tourism sector – taking into account goals, strategies and the great work that’s been done to date to develop the sector. But perhaps most importantly, we traveled throughout the country, meeting Armenians in villages near some of Armenia’s most famous sites – sharing delicious food and wine at a home in Tatev village, and hearing stories of people and place. Visiting the churches makes for a beautiful, and memorable tourism experience, but it is the people of Armenia that make a tourism experience unforgettable. How do we ensure that all visitors in Armenia have an unforgettable experience?

My Armenia was designed with four key objectives we are aiming to achieve over the next four years, ultimately to transform the tourism experience in Armenia, increasing tourist visits, but perhaps most importantly, working toward the goal of those tourists spending more time and more money in Armenia’s rural areas.

The first of these objectives is strengthening Armenia’s cultural heritage tourism offering, creating experiences to build on the iconic religious sites. We will begin our work with communities in the north and south, creating innovative ways of activating the unique stories of the places they call home. My Armenia will focus on strengthening the capacity and offerings of museums, archaeological sites, adventure activities, artisan craft and other experiences so that they function as an integrated network of anchors. In using a community-based approach – of working with people in their homes – the process has a very important added benefit: it renews and strengthens a sense of pride in cultural tradition. In coming together to identify which stories to tell, communities become both champions and protectors of their own heritage. It is in this essence, this pride of place which creates a space for exchange – it’s how we achieve that very special experience of sharing between a visitor, a people and a place.

As we work to strengthen Armenia’s cultural heritage tourism offerings, we will simultaneously focus on our second objective, which is increasing awareness of Armenia as a cultural heritage tourism destination. Awareness about Armenia is generally limited in international markets. In partnership with and in support of the important marketing work DFA is doing, My Armenia will create rich, high quality content about the experiences Armenia has to offer. This is, in part, where Smithsonian comes in – we’ll be creating visual and narrative stories about Armenia and releasing them through both our partners networks and our own media channels, in our magazine, our new travel quarterly, and perhaps most importantly, on – our digital platform which receives over 4 million individual views per month. While these stories get the word out to the general public about Armenia, we’ll also be tailoring this content for tourism marketing – helping Armenia to speak with one voice about the amazing experiences the country has to offer.

Objective 1 and 2 work hand-in-hand – as we are building awareness about Armenia as a destination, we are simultaneously diversifying and strengthening the tourism experiences available, while adding new experiences to refresh itineraries. As the public learns about Armenia and tour operators are equipped with the itineraries and marketing content to attract new visitors, our work on the ground ensures – importantly – that the tourism experience will live up to and, we hope, exceed visitor expectations.

Our third objective focuses directly on people and skills building – workforce development. As I’ve already mentioned, the richest tourism experiences are those that involve interaction between visitors and locals in ways that engage the senses and spirit, intellect and imagination. The My Armenia approach will manifest the country’s culture of warm hospitality by targeted improvements to the skills of those involved in tourism experiences. For one, this means more engaging, better storytellers – yes I’m talking about guides! But it also means training for museum and archaeological site staff, and training and product development to realize the full potential of Armenia’s rich artisan craft traditions. Finally, throughout the four years of the project, we’ll be engaging youth – in communities, in partnership with Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, as well as Armenian university students. Young people will be directly involved in our processes of identifying what makes Armenia unique, as we’ve found that cultural champions are best when their childhood is infused with pride in cultural tradition.

Our fourth and final objective is one of coordination and leverage. Armenia is relatively small, and small is beautiful! We’re looking forward to continuing efforts to convene the tourism sector and help build on the incredible work many of you are already achieving in this area. We’ll be working closely with the new World Bank project to help ensure sustainability of those very important infrastructure investments. We are very grateful for USAID’s investment in this project, but we see this $5M as just that – a seed investment toward a much larger initiative. Throughout the project, where we see opportunities for additional investment and development, we’ll be working closely with our partners to raise additional funds to turn opportunities into reality. It’s through these partnerships that we feel real transformation of the sector can be achieved.

All of you here today have an important role to play in My Armenia – as government, business owners, winemakers, tour operators, as journalists – as Armenians! We are so excited about the possibilities and look forward to your continued feedback, support and partnership to shape this effort.

And now – the exciting part. I’m pleased to present to you a short piece we put together on Areni-Vayats Dzor, in celebration of food and wine. This is an example of the storytelling and marketing content we’ll be providing for experiences across Armenia throughout the project. Thank you, and enjoy.