Growing up in L.A. in the 1950s, the strongest connection rug designer James Tufenkian had to Armenia was in the kitchen. He'd smell the cardamom, cloves, and cumin in his mother's traditional dishes, and listen to stories of his grandparents' flight from Armenia in the 1890s after a series of massacres.
In 1981, Tufenkian took his first trip to Armenia, and everything changed. "I could no longer enjoy my comfortable life while Armenians were starving, freezing, and at war," he says. "I could do something to help, and I had no excuse not to."
He got involved by doing what he does best. Tufenkian is founder and CEO of Tufenkian Carpets, and in 1993, he opened a factory in Armenia. (Until then, all of the handwoven rugs were made in Nepal.) "We retaught weavers everything their grandparents used to know about carpet-making, but forgot during Soviet times," he says. By 1999, the Armenian arm of Tufenkian Carpets was doing so well that Tufenkian used profits to start a foundation that now supports more than 50 projects, such as recording sacred Armenian music and teaching kids computer skills.
Among the foundation's successes was the Knitting Ladies, a group of 200 women who make comforters and pillow shams. Their handiwork shows up in the latest Tufenkian endeavor: new boutique hotels. "Everyone knew Armenia needed a tourist infrastructure," he recalls. "Someone in the aid community proposed moving mobile homes to the great tourist sites of the country. It was as if he saw Armenia as a crummy little country that should be content to survive in a crummy little fashion."
Tufenkian hired Irish designer Clodagh to help do the interiors of the 14-room Avan Villa in 2001 (from $102). Constructed out of pink tufa stone and overlooking the capital, Yerevan, the hotel is decorated with handwoven 19th-century rugs called kilims and thick Tufenkian carpets. Each morning, Armenian coffee and walnuts are served on a hillside terrace. A year later, he introduced the Avan Marak Tsapatagh on Lake Sevan, two hours northeast of Yerevan. The hotel uses materials that look like they came right from the earth: cave-like flagstone showers, rock tabletops, sinewy wrought-iron posts (from $74). The third hotel, Avan Dzoraget, is in a new building that resembles a castle; it's on the Debed River, near the ancient monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin (from $73). The modern world feels centuries away. Shepherds drive their flocks down the main street and draw water from a well in the hotel driveway. Tufenkian currently has plans to open four more boutique hotels, including the Avan Areni, in Armenia's wine country, in the south.
Tufenkian also launched a tour program. On the 12-day Armenia Reborn tour, visitors plant trees, watch children's art classes, meet the Knitting Ladies, and sample Armenia's renowned Ararat brandy ($1,440 per person, not including airfare). Custom single- and multiday trips are also available. "We're exposing travelers to projects and people involved in building a nation out of rubble," says Tufenkian. "We hope that everyone will be uplifted in the process." All hotels and tours are booked through tufenkian.am, 011-374/10-547-888.